By Jose Bosch
FC Tucson has made it clear on and off the field that it wants to be the gold standard in the Premier Developmental League (PDL). That mission starts on Saturday, May 5, 2012, against the current gold standard of the PDL: the Fresno Fuego.
“It’s what the game is all about,” said FC Tucson forward Travis Sanchez about beginning on the road against the defending division champion. “It’s fun going (into an opposing venue). You see Ronaldo’s game — going over (to the opposing fans) and telling them to calm down after you score a goal. That’s what soccer is all about.”
Fresno was named the 2011 Organization of the Year by PDL. On the field the Fuego went 13-0-3 en route to a Southwest Division title and the nation’s best regular season record.
While the Fuego lost 2011 MVP Milton Blanco, both Alex Caceres and Paul Islas are expected to shoulder the load, according to the PDL’s season preview. Fresno also returns defender Araia Berhane and goalkeeper Gilbert Vega, giving the team some experience at the back.
The Fuego’s title defense has already started well. Fresno defeated LA Misioneros on back-to-back weekends by a total score of 7-2.
“The (Fresno) crowd is supposed to be a big crowd,” FC Tucson defender Kareem Smith said. “It’s going to be an intense environment.”
The environment won’t be the only part of the game working against FC Tucson. Several players will be joining the team in Fresno and meeting their teammates for the first time, less than a day before kick-off. It’s a unique challenge for a young team that relies on several college players who are still at school.
Older players like Smith, who notched six caps with the Trinidad & Tobago national team, will be expected to be a calming presence on the field.
“If I see anybody that looks like they’re pretty tense, I’ll tell them they’re doing well and just keep it positive for the first 10 or 15 minutes,” Smith said. “Don’t worry about mistakes because mistakes happen.”
Smith believes the biggest challenge for FC Tucson will be overcoming nerves in the opening minutes of the first half. But once they get over that hump, Smith says, there is no question the team will play well.
“The players that are coming in and the players we have here (training in Tucson); I know everybody can play,” Smith said. “And it’s a young team, so everybody is willing to work. Once we keep it together and stay positive, we should come out with a (good) result.”