Welcome back to the Pyramid ladies and gentlemen! Soccer is getting close to being in full swing here in the states. MLS is getting ready for week 4, USL kicks off this weekend, then NASL on April 2, and the NPSL and PDL will be kicking off in a couple of weeks too. Soon, there will be national, regional and local soccer going on then we'll know what to do with.
This week, I've got the pleasure of releasing an interview I did with Jordan Wiebe of the Fresno Fuego. He's a long suffering Arsenal fan, (so sorry) photographer, and has some great things to say about supporting soccer in the lower levels. Check it out.
Tell me a little bit about yourself. Who you are, where you're from, what your role is with Fresno Fuego.
My name’s Jordan Wiebe, and I’m the marketing director for Fresno Fuego. I’m originally from a small town near Fresno called Reedley. After college, I moved around for a few years before landing back in Fresno 5 years ago. My role with the club covers marketing, social media, branding, design, ticket sales, a bit of operations, etc. If something’s out there in the public with Fuego, I’ve got a hand in it.
When did you first get interested in soccer in general and helping run a soccer team in particular? Was there a certain event that got you into the sport, or have you always been into soccer?
The soccer bug bit when I lived in the UK for a year & fell in love with Arsenal. I went to a few matches at The Emirates while there and, frankly, had never experienced anything like it. I’ve also got a background in the creative industry (photography, design, etc.), so it seemed a natural fit to pair those skills with what I’m passionate about.
Can you recap the history of Fresno Fuego? Basically, what's the teams 'origin story?’
The Fuego began in Fresno in 2002 after rights were transferred from a PDL club based in San Luis Obispo, California, called the Central Coast Roadrunners. The Roadrunners were incredibly successful, winning PDL national championships in 1996 & 1997, and the Fuego have continued that strong tradition, winning the Southwest division 4 times, Western Conference twice, and finishing as PDL Regular Season champions in 2011. The vision of Fuego ownership & leadership of the club’s first head coach Jaime Ramirez instilled a culture of success & professionalism that’s still around today.
You guys are in the middle of some exciting changes. Hired a new coach, and had some friendlies with the New York Cosmos and FC Ararat. How did those friendlies come about, and how exciting was it to host those two teams?
We generally schedule exhibitions every February & March and have been able to bring in a host of professional clubs to Fresno including the LA Galaxy, San Jose Earthquakes, the Armenian national team, América, Chivas, Atlas, and León, among others.
This year, the club was approached to host both teams in November 2015 and we jumped at the chance. Fresno has a deeply-rooted Armenian community, one of the oldest in the country, so hosting one of the most historically popular Armenian clubs was a really special thing for us. And the Cosmos, well, they’re the Cosmos: a global name, synonymous with flair, style and success. In both games we saw fantastic support from our soccer community and it was a perfect chance for our players to test themselves against top quality opposition.
What can you tell us about the teams new coach?
Sean Lanigan was hired in December of 2015 as the club’s first full-time head coach and assistant general manager, coming to the club from Virginia, where he was a long-time youth coach and part of DC United’s Academy. Lanigan holds a UEFA A License from the Irish Football Association, a USSF National A License and sent over 200 players, male and female, on to Division 1 programs during his time in northern Virginia. Sean’s focus is on building on the success the club has enjoyed throughout its’ history and growing a comprehensive, grassroots development system for the club in the Central Valley of California.
Tell me a little bit about the league you're in, the Premier Development League. What kind of advantages does it have over other leagues that you may have looked at when forming the team?
The PDL is a highly professional, well-organized league that supports its’ clubs very, very well, which isn’t always the case at non-professional league level. Due to the Roadrunners’ affiliation with the PDL & their positive experience, it was a natural fit for the Fuego to remain in the PDL.
Does the PDL have a long term vision for their league and your teams role in that future?
The PDL’s mission is to be a launching pad for players making their way into the professional ranks & we see our club in a very similar way. Long-term, I think both the PDL & Fuego would both love to see the growth of soccer culture in the US begin to embed itself in the lower tiers and at local levels; it’s great for Seattle and New York and Orlando and LA to have this great support at the MLS level but when the clubs in regions like ours, the places like Des Moines, Albuquerque, Greensboro, etc. become part of the fabric of their cities and see top level support, that’s when soccer will have made it in the US. Our club’s experiencing some of that growth in the soccer culture locally, with Fire Squad Fresno, our local supporters group of 160+ members, driving a sense of excitement about what’s going on with Fuego.
I remember reading earlier in the year that Fresno has some interest in going to the USL in the future. Seems like the perfect time to be making a move up. Is that something the team is looking into, or is Fresno going to be PDL long term?
It’s not a secret the club is looking into making the move to the USL within the next 3-5 years. We consistently rank among the top 3 in the nation in attendance at the PDL level, have sent over 50 players on to the professional ranks and play in a beautiful venue in downtown Fresno at Chukchansi Park, so some of the key components are there to make the jump. That said, a lot of things have to fall into place and until that time, we’ll continue our great relationship with PDL.
Why should the average soccer fan, both in California and across the US, care about a team in Fresno?
America loves an underdog story; well, Fresno’s the quintessential underdog. In a region that struggles with poverty, homelessness, environmental issues, slow economic growth, and is often the butt of jokes, there’s a distinct shift in Fresno generally and the club in particular to embrace our city, the quality of its’ people and build something reflective of the positive attributes we’ve got here: the diversity, the grittiness, the hard-working culture of the Central Valley. In a place people want to drive through or get out of, we’re building something uniquely us from the ground up. It’s inspiring stuff.
Cast a vision for me: Where do you see Fresno Fuego in 5 years?
I personally would love to see the club at the USL level with a soccer-specific stadium, sell-out crowds & a fully matured soccer culture that’s inclusive, innovative and proud of Fresno and the club.
Bonus Questions: Who's your pick to win the MLS Cup next year?
I’m not sure Portland can repeat, although my Timbers friends will hate me for saying that. I also don’t think LA will be successful, as long as they keep bringing in aging Europeans who were great in 2008. I’ll go with last year’s Supporters Shield winners New York Red Bulls; they’ve been close the last 2-3 years and I think this might be the year for them.
What's your favorite book, regardless of genre?
On the Road by Jack Kerouac. I read it as an impressionable 19 year old in a history class in college & it’s shaped me in many ways.
Favorite Soccer player, one past, one present.
Past, Dennis Bergkamp. The touch & vision of a god.
Present, Mesut Özil. Ditto what I said about Bergkamp.
Do you have a favorite soccer book, movie or podcast?
Podcast: I’ve got a long list but never miss Guardian Football Weekly, Arseblog or Men in Blazers.
Book: Inverting the Pyramid by Jonathan Wilson was fascinating, if dense.
How Football Explains The World by Franklin Foer was also a pretty cool lens into the cross section of soccer and the emergence of globalization.
What's your favorite league and/or team to watch?
If you didn’t pick up on it earlier: Arsenal. I follow the Premier League religiously and dabble in MLS, Bundesliga and Liga MX. La Liga, Ligue 1 and Serie A don’t interest me much.
Where can people find out more about yourself and the team?
Fresno Fuego Website: fresnofuego.com
Personal Twitter: @jordanweeb
What would you like to say to the people reading this article about why they should get out and support the lower levels of American soccer?
Nearly everyone’s looking for connection with others & to feel like a part of something bigger than themselves. There’s a growing tidal wave of people finding that through soccer in the US, whether it’s supporters clubs for MLS teams meeting up at matches or folks who support European clubs getting up at the crack of dawn to watch their side at the local pub.
The thing that sets lower-level soccer in the US apart is the personal connection you often find in the communities surrounding the club. They’re genuine communities, inclusive & diverse; doesn’t matter your race, religion, sexual orientation, financial status, ability or anything else. If you’re backing the club, you’re in. And that’s something that you don’t get everywhere else.
Jordan, thanks again for your time to do this interview with me. If you are enjoying the content I'm putting out, I'd encourage you to click here to Follow me on Twitter, or here to Like the page on Facebook. And if you'd like even more content coming your way on the regular, click here and sign up for the weekly newsletter, containing fun articles and videos, sometimes covering soccer, sometimes not. Make sure to spread the word. Share interviews, tell friends about the blog, those kind of things. I can't accomplish my goal of maximum exposure for all levels of the American Soccer Pyramid without YOU. Until next time, Stay Loyal, Support Local.