Written by The Business Journal Staff
Internationally, there is no denying that soccer is king, but in the U.S. the sport is often overshadowed by the popularity of American football, basketball and baseball.
Though its games are not as highly televised, soccer continues to be the preferred sport among young athletes. More and more kids are now choosing to stick with soccer instead of switching to one of the aforementioned sports when they reach high school. This is partially due to the increase in opportunities to play soccer collegiately and professionally.
Two decades ago, Fresno area soccer fans only had Fresno State and Fresno City teams to cheer on, and one of those teams was downgraded to a club sport when Fresno State chose to eliminate its men’s soccer team to comply with Title IX. Today, while the Fresno State men’s team is still on hiatus, there are more opportunities as the Fresno Fuego professional team just completed its 14th season and the new Fresno Freeze women’s soccer team just wrapped up its second. Two new collegiate soccer teams at Clovis Community College are also just starting to practice in their first season.
Clovis Community College men’s soccer coach Chad McCarty, a former Olympian in the sport who has coached several youth teams over the years — including the Clovis North Boys Soccer team — said soccer has always been favored among youth and now he’s glad to see more opportunities in the area for these talented athletes.
“Locally, there are a lot of club soccer teams and they have a huge following — the Clovis Junior League, for one, has 6,000 kids participating — but there was never an outlet here for players after high school,” McCarty said. “The community college system, with Fresno City and now Clovis Community, realizes the importance of providing an opportunity for these players to stay here. Those in positions of power have a love of the game and they’ve seen what it can do. Soccer has always had a presence in the Central Valley because we have a large Latino community with a strong culture and soccer is huge in that community. That is why the club system here is so strong.”
A Clovis native, McCarty left the area after high school to play collegiate soccer for the University of Washington, and he says larger cities like Portland and Seattle are ahead of the pack when it comes to offering more soccer programs. Soccer’s popularity is on the upswing nationwide, he said, and the Central Valley is catching up, thanks in large part to the Fresno Fuego.
“Fuego and now Freeze are providing a platform for young players to move forward,” McCarty said.
Jeremy Schultz, general manager of the Fresno Fuego and the Fresno Freeze said he has witnessed tremendous growth in the sport since he played as a kid in Madera.
“Soccer is certainly trending upward and I feel like it is a general shift that is happening in mainstream sports in our country,” Schultz said. “Not only is it growing in our community but throughout this whole country, soccer is becoming more and more mainstream. Kids are now staying with the sport hoping to become professionals because there is professional opportunity for them now and you didn’t see that back when I was a kid.”
The popularity of Fuego and Freeze is growing, partially because 75 percent of their players are from the Central Valley and they garner lots of support and partially because the teams have winning records — in two seasons, the Freeze has only lost four games and the Fuego has enjoyed a couple of division championships over the years. The success has spurred on the Fuego’s supporter’s club, the Fire Squad Fresno.
“Our supporter’s club is a lot of the live, work, play downtown millennial base,” Schultz said. “They get off work, they have some beers at Tioga Sequoia and march in together and it is just an incredible, electric environment that they are creating and that environment is contagious to our loyal fan base that has been with us many years. The energy levels of games are rising and not only does the team perform and do well on the field, but now you have this atmosphere like nothing else in sports in town.”
Clovis Community College women’s soccer coach Orlando Ramirez played for the Fuego during its first season in the summer of 2003. He said he is amazed at the sports growth among fans.
“The fan base and culture have grown and it is neat to see the addition of the Freeze for the women,” Ramirez said. “It is amazing what they are doing.”
While it has only been a couple weeks since Ramirez’s team has started practicing, the former Clovis Unified coach said he expects great things.
“The challenge of a first year program is creating chemistry and taking the time to develop that team culture,” Ramirez said. “Looking at the players we have, they played at a high level in high school and in club soccer so the expectations are that they will be able to compete and have an opportunity to win each game. I think we’ll do well in our league and hopefully make it to playoffs.”
McCarty is also optimistic for the men’s team.
“There is so much talent in the Valley that we’ll easily have three strong teams—Fresno City, West Hills and Clovis Community — and I expect they will all be at the top,” McCarty said. “It will be a bumpy road because we’re a young team with 23 freshmen, but we’ll learn as we go. We’re not taking a light approach.”
One of McCarty’s team’s first games will be an exhibition game against Fuego at 4 p.m. Aug. 23 at Clovis Community College.
While the Fuego has finished its season, which runs late April to mid-July, Schultz said his veteran players are always training and always stay ready for exhibition games. He also said the Central Valley can expect more from Fuego before next season.
“I think this community can expect to hear some big things from Fuego in the next six months to a year; there will be some exciting things happening,” Schultz said.