Fresno FC falls short in promising rivalry

Fresno FC’s Jemal Johnson (left) battles Sacramento Republic defender Elliott Hord for the ball during the Highway 99 Derby rivalry game at Chukchansi Park, June 13, 2018. Courtesy of Fresno FC

Fresno FC is only in its first season as a USL team, but the rivalry with Sacramento Republic is quickly taking shape.

In what is already dubbed as the Highway 99 Derby, the two teams met in the regular season for the first time and played to an exciting finish.

This time it was the Republic who survived a valiant second half effort from Los Zorros, winning 1-0 at Chukchansi Park on Wednesday, June 13.

“We gave ourselves a mountain to climb,” Fresno FC head coach Adam Smith said. “We nearly climbed it. We had a lot of chances in the second half. We just couldn’t convert.”

As the rivalry continued to heat up, so did the temperature. The players were given a water break in the first half as the Fresno temperature neared 100 degrees.

“I think there were tired legs on both teams and that reflected with the temperature,” Smith said.

Republic’s Luis Espino scored the only goal of the game, converting on a rebound after Jure Matjasic’s shot was blocked by goalkeeper C.J. Cochran in the 37th minute.

Los Zorros made substitutions in the second half, helping bring more energy to the field. Despite the faster pace and more chances in the second half, Los Zorros were not able to find the back of the net.

Two of Fresno FC’s chances came in the stoppage time. The first of the two chances was a freekick which was blocked by the Republic goalkeeper. Los Zorros then earned a corner, but the header went wide and the final whistle followed immediately afterwards.

“I asked for some urgency tonight,” Smith said. “It wasn’t as much as I hope, but I also understand there are a lot of tired people out there. We have traveled, we’ve had Open Cup games. We really had very little time in between to rest and train.”

Goalkeeper C.J. Cochran, who joined Fresno FC just two days before the match against Sacramento, made several saves to keep Los Zorros in the game. Cochran had one of his key saves in the 67th minute when he made a diving stop.

“We came out in the second half and played really well,” Cochran said. “We were arguably the better team for 25-30 minutes. We kept pressuring them. We just couldn’t find the back of the net.”

Smith said the rivalry could be exciting for years to come.

“It’s the closest USL team to Fresno. There are a lot of players on both teams that have played for Fresno or Sacramento,” Smith said. “It makes for a great rivalry.”

Los Zorros fell to 3-5-7 in the Western Conference, while Sacramento improves to 8-3-4. Fresno’s next match will be at home against Swope Park Rangers on Sunday, June 17. Kickoff is set for 6 p.m. at Chukchansi Park.

“We have some good fans here and a good atmosphere,” Smith said. “It wasn’t a bad crowd for a Wednesday night. With the high temperatures as well, we still had a decent crowd.”

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