Los Zorros return to Fresno for the first time since their home opener as they host Tulsa Roughnecks FC in a Saturday night showdown at Chukchansi Park. Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m. It is the first of two meetings between the two sides that split the points in two draws a year ago.
Fresno FC looks to extend its unbeaten streak against a Tulsa Roughnecks side that is tied with four other clubs at the top of the Western Conference table. Despite sitting in 11th, Los Zorros have just played four matches to start 2019, and have conceded just two goals through those 360 minutes for the least goals-against average in the USL West. The defense was proven a week ago when Fresno grabbed its second clean sheet of the season in a scoreless draw against Phoenix Rising FC that also saw Los Zorros play down a man for the final 60 minutes of the match after a Seth Moses red card. Able to steal a point from one of the most productive offenses in the league, Los Zorros will look to their back line of Alex Cooper, Mickey Daly, Ramon Martin Del Campo and gain to give them the advantage against a Tulsa team that has scored 15 goals this season - 10 of which came from set pieces. Leading the way is Luca Lobo who has seven goals and one assist through five matches this season, including a brace in last week's 4-2 loss against LA Galaxy II. Rodrigo da Costa has created most of the opportunity for the Roughnecks with a club-best five assists. The Roughnecks are the former club of Fresno FC Captain Juan Pablo Caffa, who scored nine goals was captain of the Roughnecks in his first USL season in 2017.
The Roughnecks are coached by former MLS defender (Portland Timbers/LA Galaxy) and Tulsa native Michael Nsien. Nsien was named the USL Championship's March Coach of the Month after leading Tulsa to a 3-1-1 record that month.
The big matchup of the weekend will be Fresno FC's defense, which ranks No. 1 in the USL Western Conference, going toe-to-toe with Tulsa's offense that has produced a USL-best 15 goals to start the season. Los Zorros put their credit on a full backline that it retained from a year ago, that has recorded two clean sheets in 2019, so far.
And while that is a great start, center back Mickey Daly knows there's still to room for improvement, especially heading into this weekend where they'll face a difficult test against a Roughnecks side that has scored 10 of its 15 goals from set pieces.
"I think the communication from us all - me, Ramon, CJ, and the back four - has been very solid this year. We have definitely picked up where we left off last season as one of the better defenses in the league so that's a really good sign... But, we have to keep pushing forward and growing as a team," Daly said. "We have to fine-tune a couple of little of things like set pieces and smaller details but we're pinpointing those and improving on those little details for Saturday."
But it isn't just the returning back line and goalkeeper CJ Cochran that can take the credit for the impressive goals-against record. It's a full team effort, Cochran says.
"I think our whole team defends really well. We start from the front. The forwards make it difficult on the center backs, and then the midfielders and obviously the defense - it's a full team effort in terms of keeping the other team off the score sheet," he said.
That collective effort "highlights the type of players that we have [in Fresno]," Cochran added. "We're very hard working, never give up and fight 'til the end. Anyone who has ever played the game has probably been on a team that's gone a man down at some point and they know how hard it is. We went 60 minutes a man down and that was very hard to do against a very good Phoenix team so that was very rewarding to grab a shutout on the road."
Heading into Saturday, the Foxes are optimistic as they face another difficult test.
"I think we're feeling confident and we know that we haven't reached the height of our potential as a team, so that's exciting," Cochran said. "We also know those points on the road are good points, but they don't mean that much unless we can get three points at home. Three points at home is a must and it's a must this weekend."
"Everybody is on a high after the Phoenix game because it's always difficult going down to 10 men and playing away from home against a very strong side, so we had to grind it out. Now it's a case of building on that and preparing for tomorrow.
"If we play to the levels we're capable of playing - which we haven't shown yet on the offensive side of the game - we're going to cause Tulsa some problems. It's going to be an exciting night at the Chuk and it's going to be a dynamic game and we're going to take it to them.
"The conditions are still good right now. There's no reason we can't play with a ton of energy and urgency. If we keep our defensive record intact and build on the offensive side of things it will be a good night for us." - Head coach Adam Smith