HARRISBURG, Pa. – For Penn FC defender Marco Franco, the life of a professional soccer player has involved trying to reconcile two of his opposing instincts: the will to travel and the desire to stay close to his family.
Franco, a Chino Hills, Calif. native, found himself far away from home in his first season with Penn FC, but he still finds time to reach out and stay in touch with his family. And they, in turn, have turned into his biggest fan club, even from afar.
His family didn’t have to travel nearly as far when his playing career first started. Franco played four years of college soccer only 30 miles down the road at the University of California-Irvine. It was the perfect situation that allowed Franco to pursue his future while staying close.
The UC Irvine Anteaters were a successful squad while Franco played for them, making the NCAA Tournament in 2011 and 2013 -- the Anteaters would be knocked out of the 2013 tourney by future teammate Dan Metzger and the University of Maryland Terrapins.
The Chicago Fire drafted Franco in the first round of the 2014 MLS SuperDraft -- the same draft that future teammate Kyle Venter was in -- and Franco’s sunny Californian reality became very cold.
“I think there was a blizzard the first time I flew into Chicago,” Franco said. “It was the scariest plane ride of my life.
“I’m on the plane with shorts and everyone else is wearing pants.”
Franco was loaned out twice by the Fire and each loan made an impact on his career. The defender was given a reprieve from the icy temperatures of the Windy City during his first loan spell at Orange County Blues FC, now known as Orange County SC in the USL. The loan was a homecoming for Franco as OC Blues played on the same field as UC Irvine, and the young professional had a large cheering section for those matches.
“It was a little surreal,” Franco said. “All my former teammates and all my family came to watch me. It was nothing but joy when I was able to reunite with everyone.”
His second loan returned him to the midwest for a few matches with Indy Eleven but the initial short-term loan quickly turned into a lasting engagement. Franco signed his next contract with Indy before the 2015 season and he would continue to play for the Eleven for the next three years, making 82 more appearances with the team.
As a defender, it can sometimes be difficult for a player to really stand out and attract the attention of the fans, but Franco worked his way into the rabid hearts of the Indy faithful. He thinks it was a combination of traits that earned the support.
“Toughness (and) just giving my all on the field,” Franco said. As long as you show that you’re leaving your all on the field (the fans are) always behind you rain or shine.”
The combination of Marco’s family and the Indy Eleven fans helped create a special group during a 2016 Indy NASL playoff match. His family was finally able to come out from California for the occasion and they brought a surprise for him; several large cardboard cut-outs of his head.
“I had no idea, actually. They showed me as I was getting ready,” Franco admitted.
The “Marco Franco Fan Club” as they would be called, helped cheer Indy to victory over FC Edmonton -- and future teammate Pedro Galvão. The fan club still maintains a presence on Twitter to this day and made a video tribute to his time with the club when he played against them with Penn FC back in June.
Following the end of the 2017 season, Franco signed with Penn FC for the 2018 season; a move that has taken him further away from his family. However, the conveniences of modern technology allow him to still keep in close touch.
“Facetime is a game changer when it comes to [staying in touch], Franco said. “I’m always talking to my dad before games and after games. It makes it a little bit easier when you can’t see them all the time.”
Beyond that, Marco has been adapting well to his new surroundings in Harrisburg.
“I love exploring the city and finding little gems,” he said. “We’ve explored a little bit and we love going down by the river.”
He’s also using his time in between matches to travel to many of the big East Coast cities like New York and Philadelphia that are just a short trip from Harrisburg. However, one area that Marco has been able to resist traveling to is nearby Hershey, Pa. Franco has a bit of a sweet tooth, but he has been able to resist the home of some of America’s most famous chocolate because his tastes run more towards the sour candies.
“You’re kinda craving that kind of thing. Especially right after games,” Franco said. “Sour patch kids, sour watermelon, I like them all.”
Sadly, even with the number of calories a USL player burns, Franco still has to watch the amount of candy he’s eating. However, if you happened to have some sour candy at the end of a match, he admits, “I might grab a handful.”
Franco’s family hasn’t been able to make the trip out to see him with Penn FC yet this season. However, with Penn FC playing at home for the remainder of the season as part of The Homestretch, he’s been trying to get the Marco Franco Fan Club to make an appearance on City Island. So if you happen to see about ten people in Harrisburg with large posters of Marco Franco’s head, you’ll know that they’ve arrived.