From Midfielder to the Fresno Fuego Front Office: Jeremy Schultz’s Soccer Journey

On Wednesday, April 26, Jeremy Schultz diligently answered emails while taking phone calls in preparation for Fresno Fuego’s 2017 PDL season opener. Having won their division the previous season, the Fuego team also qualified to participate in the 104th edition of the U.S. Open Cup. As we sat down in the offices overlooking the field at Chukchansi Park, Jeremy struggled to hold back his excitement. As a Fresno native who came of age in the late 1980s, Jeremy has experienced the growing-pains of U.S. soccer, particularly in the Central Valley. His trajectory as a player, coach, and manager provides us with an opportunity to reflect on the development of soccer in Fresno over the past four decades and to contemplate its future.

Jeremy Schultz was born on May 2, 1976 in the small town of Visalia, California but grew up in Madera and later Fresno. Lynn and Kathie Schultz, his parents, provided Jeremy with the opportunity to play many sports including football, basketball and soccer. As an 8 year-old, Jeremy played for his first recreational soccer team, “Sports Step”, which was sponsored by the local sporting goods store. This was the first-time Jeremy experienced playing in an intense environment, which stimulated his young desire for winning and his commitment to soccer. The 1980s were an exciting time for soccer players, fans, and coaches. Indeed, Jeremy joined youth across the United States in making soccer the second most played recreational sport: just behind basketball. 

In the 1980s and 1990s, American coaches and officials worked hard to develop youth soccer, but signs of its infancy were deeply felt, particularly in places like the Central Valley. Unlike in Latin America or Europe, playing competitive soccer in the United States is expensive and a huge financial strain for working class and even some middle-class families. Jeremy’s family, for example, would often resort to partially paying a bill in order to cover the travel associated with club soccer. Moreover, there were limited number of club teams and while their travel was often very limited. Jeremy, for example, played for Madera’s first club soccer team in 1989. Hoping to expand this young soccer players access to competitive soccer, Mr. and Mrs. Schultz moved from Madera to Fresno which allowed Jeremy to pursue the Olympic Development Program ¾ the only avenue at the time to make the U.S. Olympic team ¾ and to play for the Valley Premier club team.

While the infrastructure to support soccer players in Fresno and Central Valley was not as developed as in other parts of the county, coaches and parents worked hard to provide players the opportunity to showcase their skills on both a national and international stage. With Valley Premier, Jeremy traveled to Texas and played in prestigious Dallas Cup youth tournament. In the 1990s, just like today, this was the most competitive and important tournament for youth players, drawing a fair share of club teams from Latin American and Europe. The Valley Premier played in the Dallas Cup three times and became one of the first American teams to actually win the cup.

Still relatively new, club soccer consisted primarily of travel between nearby towns; only teams with immense talent traveled to places like Dallas. Fortunately, Jeremey was able to play in the Dallas Cup as well as in Europe. In the early 1990s, Jeremy was selected to represent Team USA; allowing him to travel and play in Europe. The young midfielder beat out hundreds of club players for a spot on the roster. Along with players from across the United States, he traveled to Europe for thirty-two days where he played in a number of Cup Games and even trained in Holland for a week with Dutch coaches. “That experience was probably the turning point for me to really understand that this was going to be my life passion and pursuit of where I wanted to go,” Jeremy reflected during an oral history for Fresno State’s Valley Public History Initiative.

By playing both club soccer and at Hoover High School, Jeremy drew the attention of college coaches and secured a soccer scholarship from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited and optimistic about the transition to collegiate soccer, Jeremy also faced the challenge of competing with older, more physically developed players. While enjoying the opportunity to play for the Mustangs, financial constraints forced Jeremy to transfer to Fresno State after only one quarter at Cal Poly. While perusing his general education as a psychology major, Jeremy continued to play soccer with the Fresno State program. In order for Jeremy to achieve his dream of playing soccer professionally, he made the decision to leave Fresno State after a year and a half to test his luck in the lower leagues of U.S. soccer.

Jeremy’s entrance into league soccer came at a pivotal time for the development of soccer in the United States. Prior to this point in Jeremy’s story, U.S. soccer leagues lacked the stability that was necessary for growth; largely due to the absence of American interest. The North American Soccer League (NASL) was established as the first professional league in the United States in 1968, however the lack of financial support caused the league to dissolve in 1985.[2] With other leagues established before the 1990s, some prevailing and some being very short lived, the United States failed to create a first division league with subordinate developmental leagues; largely due to insufficient “depth of talented players and financial backing to support such a system.”[3] In 1994 however, American soccer culture began to shift when the United States was selected to host the World Cup finals. The international tournament brought much needed attention to the sport, both by fans and sponsors, which resulted to the establishment of Major League Soccer (MLS) in 1996.[4] The MLS became the second top tier league in U.S. history and was ultimately became  the head of a unique soccer structure in the United States.

Jeremy was brought onto the Central Coast Roadrunners team after being scouted by his former coach at Cal Poly. The Roadrunners team were in the Primer Development League (PDL), which is the fourth tier of soccer in the United States and is also the highest amateur level league. In his first season with the Roadrunner side, Jeremy’s team won the 1996 PDL national championship in Coco Beach Florida, which aired on national television. The game ended in a one to zero result and gave Jeremy his first taste of “professional sports.” Unfortunately, due to the structure of U.S. soccer, teams from lower leagues are not promoted to higher levels after achieving success. Being selected to host the final the following year, the Roadrunners were able to defend their title in 1997; becoming the first team to win back to back national championships.

In the middle of their second title run, the Roadrunners played in the 1997 Open Cup. Having its inaugural season in 1914, the Open Cup is the longest running sports tournament in the United States and second oldest soccer tournament in the world.[5] The Open Cup is a knockout tournament, which allows teams from across different leagues to play against one another; making it possible for amateur teams go up against professional ones. Jeremy’s team hosted the San Jose Clash from the newly established MLS in the third round of the cup. Understanding the importance of this game, 8,500 members of the community came out in full support to cheer on their underdog team. Sixty-three seconds after the whistle blew to start the game, Craig Tomlinson, a former Fresno State player, “got around the end, served the ball back, it bounced once,” then Jeremy blasted the ball into the top corner of the net, hearing the roar of the crowd behind him! While the Roadrunners got on the score-board first, they would end up conceding five goals and only scoring two.

Following the end of the 1997 PDL season, Dan Tobias, the Roadrunners coach, was awarded a contract with the California Jaguars; a professional team in the second tier of U.S. soccer. Because teams were not promoted or relegated throughout the ranks of U.S. soccer, players had to rely on their individual efforts and hope for a professional contract offer. Having been impressed with Jeremy’s hard work and contribution to the Roadrunner’s success, Tibias offered him his first professional contract. Despite making it to professional soccer, Jeremy’s contract was not worth much; making finances a constant struggle. Jeremy and some of his teammates even had to rely money from their parents while all rooming together, just to keep their soccer dreams alive. Departure from the Jaguars led Jeremy to have a small 45-day trial run with the Hershey Wildcats in Pennsylvania before coming back to California to represent the Sacramento Geckos. Notwithstanding the success of the MLS, the second-tier Geckos franchise only lasted one year, showing the brokenness and lack of fanatical backing in the lower leagues of the U.S. soccer system during the 1990s. Jeremey was then left without a contract before signing a one-year deal with the San Francisco Bay Seals. After his one season with the Seals, Jeremy opted out of a one-year addition to his contract, choosing to hang up his boots and retire from professional soccer at the young age of twenty-one.

Jeremy’s decision to step away from soccer, professionally, came in his 1999 off season when he met his future wife, Cherie, while waiting tables at a restaurant in Visalia. Having to work while playing in order to pay the bills had become too much of a burden, which also added to Jeremy’s choose to retire. Not wanting to leave the game completely, his love for the sport drove him to peruse coaching youth soccer. Jeremy’s initial idea to coach came as a player, while participating in youth soccer camps put on by his former clubs. Seeing the joy of the kids while playing was the reward that he wanted most from coaching. Once back living in Visalia, a friend of Jeremy’s asked him to run a training session with his under thirteen girls team; the Visalia Freedom. After a few practices, Jeremy eventually took over as head coach of the team.

With a few seasons of firsthand experience in youth coaching, Jeremey noticed that Visalia’s player pool was being diluted due to the multitude of club teams. Realizing that negatively impacted the development of youth soccer , Jeremy and a coalition of coaches began researching other youth development programs within the United States. After countless late night meetings, months of preparation and the help of other coaches, Jeremey pioneered the establishment of South Valley United Soccer Club in 2002. Bringing all the Visalia club teams together under one club enabled many youth players their first opportunity to play at a very competitive level. In the first season of South Valley, there were fourteen teams from various age groups. With a newly available concentration of talent available, South Valley was able to produce many state championship teams from Visalia. By 2007, the club had caught the attention of players from around the Central Valley; growing to upwards of forty teams.

As South Valley United’s 2007 season was ending, Jeremy was approached with the opportunity to become the General Manager of the Fresno Fuego Futbol Club; a PDL franchise. With many of South Valley’s teams still having state championship games, Jeremy asked for a few months to sort out his affairs and fulfil his obligations as the director of coaching at the club. Fortunately, Jeremey was able to finish the season with South Valley before becoming the General Manager of Fresno Fuego on April 12, 2008. Jeremy has since then become a minority owner at the club, allowing him to have an impact on the highest level of soccer in the Central Valley.

On the evening of May 6,  2017, as the Fuego players prepared to take the pitch for their season opener, a growing sound began to engulf the stadium a Chukchansi Park:

O when the Squad (when the Squad) Go marching in (marching in) Now, when the Squad go marching in (marching in) Yes, I want to be in that number When the Squad go marching in…

Members of the local supporters group, Fire Squad Fresno, came out in the hundreds, creating the perfect atmosphere for a soccer match. Within the opening minutes, the Fuego set the tone for the night. The defending division champions netted four goals, racking up a clean sheet against rival Burlingame. With this result, the team went into the first round of the U.S. Open Cup, just four days later, buzzing with confidence.

Having home field advantage gave the Fuego even more confidence, knowing that there would be the support of the local community. As Jeremy stood, watching from a distance, the match went underway. With the game being end to end, the whole stadium was on edge; a loss would mean elimination from the tournament. The deadlock was eventually broken in the nineteenth minute of the match, when Jose Cuevas scored the opener. The opponents, La Máquina, drew the game level in final third of the game. Jeremy’s feelings were evident as he stomped the ground in frustration. Five minutes after the equalizer, Cuevas scored his second as the crowd erupted in cheer! Immediately after scoring his brace, Cuevas was subbed off for fellow striker, Joey Chica. Quickly making an impact, Chica stretched the Fuego’s lead; scoring his first goal for the club after only being on the pitch for three minutes! In stoppage time the Fuego were able to add to their lead once more before the final whistle blew.

Fresno Fuego faced the professional side, Phoenix Rising, from the second tier of U.S soccer. Whilt they lost, the platform of the Open Cup provided the Fuego team, comprised with a majority of players from the Central Valley, a national audience. The Phoenix roster features world class players such as former Chelsea star, Didier Drogba and former Mexican National team player, Omar Bravo. Player excitement was matched by community support, which has also contributed to the recent announcement that Fresno will be receiving a professional soccer franchise in following year. Through Jeremy’s leadership, soccer in the Central Valley is reaching new heights while also displaying the continued development of soccer within the United States.

Tyler Caffee is a first-year undergraduate history major at California State University, Fresno. The youngest of three siblings, Tyler aspires to become a high school history teacher.

References

[1] Markovits, Andrei S. “Reflections on the World Cup ’98.” French Politics and Society 16, no. 3 (1998): 19-29. http://www.jstor.org/stable/42844863, 21.

[2] Twomey, John, and James Monks. “Monopsony and Salary Suppresion: The Case of Major League Soccer in America.” The American Economist 56, no. 1 (2011): 20-28. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23240678, 20.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Veseth, Michael. “The Beautiful Game and the American Exception.” International Review of Modern Sociology 32, no. 2 (2006): 181-97. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41421241, 195.

[5] “About the U.S. Open Cup.” About the U.S. Open Cup – U.S. Soccer. Accessed May 09, 2017. http://www.ussoccer.com/lamar-hunt-us-open-cup/about-the-us-open-cup.

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