After years of playing for merely the love of the game, the Southern Oregon Fuego has taken a step forward this season in hopes of building an even greater foundation for local soccer players beyond the high school and club levels.
Beginning tonight at 5, fans will get a chance to see exactly what that next step entails as the Fuego welcomes the Lamorinda United SC into town for its home opener at the recently completed soccer/football venue at U.S. Cellular Community Park.
"The guys have been together for a long time and we're excited about being part of something a little bigger and better this year," says Jay Coster, managing owner of the Fuego.
The Fuego is in the midst of its first season of competition in the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL), a semi-professional men's soccer league founded in 2003 and consisting of 30 teams in six divisions across the country.
"We're playing for keeps now," says Fuego coach Dave Kaufman. "I think the biggest thing is in the past the team has essentially been an exhibition team and played some good competition but that was about it. By human nature you always like to play for something, and now we are."
The Fuego is one of three first-year NPSL teams in the Western Division, with most teams based in the Bay Area in California. The local team has already played a pair of road games entering tonight's contest, dropping a 1-0 decision to the Bay Area Ambassadors on a goal in the 87th minute and a 2-1 setback at the hands of the Salinas Valley Samba last week.
"The part that is impressing me is these guys are jumping out of a car after a seven-hour drive and battling their butts off and being competitive," says Kaufman.
The Fuego is comprised of local soccer players from their teens to late 20s. Co-captain Cameron Coster has the honor of being the team's oldest player at 30, and it was the midfielder's research into the NPSL that helped make this all happen for the local players.
Eighteen-year-olds Humberto Cortez and Nate Roupp are in the process of wrapping up their senior years at South Medford and Ashland high schools, respectively, and are the team's youngest members.
"The nice thing is it's a really good mix," Kaufman says of his team. "I've always found it to be interesting how you can have such an age range and it still works, but that's a classic mix of what you see in just about any sport at the professional level."
In all, the Fuego is allowed to carry 26 players and some members who have been training with the team are still awaiting clearance from the NPSL.
From former Ashland High standouts Corey Fisher, Rodrigo Ramos and Fabian Garcia to South Medford alums Corey O'Neill, the Fuego is loaded with talent from local programs.
"We have kids that played locally for South, Phoenix, Ashland, North ... and out of that we've been able to pluck the top players from most of those programs," says Kaufman.
The squad also leans on the leadership of co-captain and central defender Rael Hirning, and gets a boost from Sonoma State All-American goalkeeper Brook Johnson, who trains on his own and with the Sonoma County Sol NPSL team but joins the Fuego on game days.
"He's really good at solidifying our defense," Kaufman says of the goalie. That position, obviously, is near and dear to Kaufman's heart since he was enshrined into the Sonoma State Hall of Fame for his All-American exploits in the net.
Although any team takes time to develop, Kaufman says he's pleased with what he's seen thus far from the Fuego.
"Two games in, I think the guys are realizing that they can compete," he says. "We're playing at a level that nobody has seen before, so it's all new. The pace is considerably faster than what we usually see around here, where the highest level is La Liga (Adult Soccer League)."
Eddie Rochholz, another of the so-called "old-timers" on the Fuego at age 29, tallied his team's lone goal last week. If there is an area that the Fuego needs to make strides in, Kaufman says it's in creating more offensive opportunities, but he expects that to come as players get more used to each other and his system.
"We have six teams in our division," adds the coach, "and I honestly think that we're of a level that I think we can compete for a mid-table finish this season. I would be really satisfied with that for our first year."
All Fuego home games will be played at the U.S. Cellular Community Park site. Tickets are regularly $6 for adults and $4 for ages 6-17, but tonight's special home-opening promotion has the prices dropped to $3 for adults and free for all others.
The NPSL game also coincides with a Phase 3 Grand Opening Weekend at U.S. Cellular Community Park, with events beginning with a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the soccer/football stadium (Field 10) at 9:30 this morning and continuing through Sunday.
Grand Opening Schedule
U.S. Cellular Community Park
10 a.m. — Medford Babe Ruth 14/15 vs. Phoenix/Talent (DH)
6-8 p.m. — Baseball pre-movie contests and promotions
9:30 a.m. — Ribbon-cutting ceremony
9:30-10:30 a.m. — Free youth football clinic presented by SOU Football (for ages 6-14)
10:45-11:15 a.m. — SOU Football exhibition game (no pads)
11:45 a.m. — NFL Flag Football: Packers vs. Dolphins (U9)
12:45 p.m. — NFL Flag Football: Cowboys vs. Patriots (U9)
1:45 p.m. — NFL Flag Football: Broncos vs. Packers (U14)
2:45 p.m. — NFL Flag Football: Eagles vs. Bucs (U14)
5 p.m. — Professional soccer: Fuego vs. Nor Cal Lamorinda ($3 adults, 17-and-under free)
Dusk — Outdoor movie: "Field of Dreams" (presented by U.S. Cellular)
Noon — RVSC Storm vs. Ashland Flames (U14 girls)
2 p.m. — RVSC Power Strikers vs. Grants Pass Quick Silver (U14 girls)
4 p.m. — RVSC Shockwave vs. RVSC Revolution (U14 boys)
6 p.m. — RVSC Panthers vs. Grants Pass Fuse (U14 boys)
Noon — RVSC Venom vs. RVSC Blackhawks (U12 girls)
2 p.m. — RVSC Adrenaline vs. Grants Pass Torrent (U12 boys)
4 p.m. — RVSC Lightning vs. Basin Spartans (U12 boys)
6 p.m. — RVSC Arsenal vs. RSA (U19 boys)
Noon — RVSC Black Thunder vs. RVSC Surge (U12 girls)
2 p.m. — RVSC FC United vs. Basin (U19 boys)
4 p.m. — RVSC XPlosion vs. Central Point Rockers (U17 boys)
6 p.m. — RVSC Force vs. RVSC Maurauders (U17 girls)
11:45 a.m. — NFL Flag Football: Seahawks vs. Jaguars (U9)
12:45 p.m. — NFL Flag Football: Panthers vs. 49ers (U9)
1:45 p.m. — NFL Flag Football: Cowboys vs. Rams (U14)
5:30 p.m. — La Liga Adult Soccer League game: Arsenal vs Q'Dinamo
10 a.m. — MABL/NABA Adult Baseball: Red Sox vs. Giants
1 p.m. — MABL/NABA Adult Baseball: Longhorns vs. Black Sox
4 p.m. — MABL/NABA Adult Baseball: Cardinals vs. Royals
2-7:30 p.m. — Free public concert (presented by Medford Medical Clinic and Opus Radio)
— RazzaMoJazz, Heart & Soul, The Rogue Suspects
Noon — RVSC Storm vs. RVSC Annihilators (U14 girls)
2 p.m. — RVSC Power Strikers vs. Grants Pass Freedom (U14 girls)
4 p.m. — RVSC Revolution vs. Grants Pass TNT (U14 boys)
6 p.m. — RVSC Crush vs. Ashland Pursuit (U14 girls)
Noon — RVSC SWAT vs. RVSC Blackhawks (U12 girls)
2 p.m. — RVSC Arsenal vs. Ashland Big Al's (U19 boys)
4 p.m. — RVSC Force vs. Grants Pass Nitro (U17 girls)
6 p.m. — RVSC Fusion and Grants Pass (U19 girls)
Noon — RVSC Arsenal vs. Central Point Nightmare (U12 boys)
2 p.m. — RVSC Surge vs. Basin Forza (U12 girls)
8 a.m. — La Liga Adult Soccer League game: Pumas vs United
10 a.m. — La Liga Adult Soccer League game: Quetzeria vs Crescent City
2 p.m. — Medford Ultimate Frisbee League team meetings
2:40 p.m. — Ultimate Frisbee Skills Clinic (free, open to the public)
3:30 p.m. — Medford Ultimate League scrimmages
4-6 p.m. — Medford Ultimate League games
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 776-4488, or e-mail email@example.com