“It’s going to be a great challenge.”
Christiano Francois, his smile beaming more broadly than the wingspan of his 5-foot-7 frame, pointed out toward the pitch of Highmark Stadium as he spoke. He’ll begin playing for the newly rebranded Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC this spring and, as a sparkplug attacking midfielder in new coach Bob Lilley’s system, he’ll be pivotal toward their rebuilding.
But when this young man talks about challenges, about rebuilding, there’s a context that strays far beyond soccer.
Francois is 24 now. He was a relative child when unimaginable tragedy struck his native Haiti on the 12th of January, 2010: A 7.0 earthquake struck the capital Port-au-Prince with a ferocity unlike anything seen globally in decades. Our hemisphere’s poorest country couldn’t come close to handling it, with the rickety construction of its structures and inability to pay for damage control. Entire buildings crumbled. Schoolhouses collapsed on children. And even well after those fateful 35 seconds, then the two aftershocks of 5.0-plus, the hunger, the disease and a lack of medical facilities took so much more.
Total death total, as estimated by the Haitian government: 316,000.
“Whatever you imagine, whatever you think,” Francois says, “it was so much worse.”
Francois’ recollection remains strikingly vivid, and maybe that’s because he was standing on a soccer field in a wide-open area. This was with his scholastic team, based in his hometown of Cabaret but training on this day in the north of Port-au-Prince, and they were going through routine training when everyone heard a rumbling sound. Then felt it.
“It was like a big machine. That’s what I was thinking. And it was coming toward us,” he said. “I didn’t know what to do. Everyone started running. Our coach, he told everyone to lay down on the ground. We did. Soon, it was over.”
So he thought. They had no idea, too poor for cellphones or web connections, and wholly unaware of the scope of what had just occurred.
Until they began their walk back into the heart of the city.
“That’s when we saw what happened. Oh my God. Everything was down. Everything was gone. And when I got back home, I found out everything that happened. Everything. I … I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe it.”
Francois was among the fortunate. He wasn’t hurt. His family was fine, too. But close friends lost their lives. Others lost limbs.
And the kid himself was most definitely changed forever.
“I appreciate what I have. So many people lost everything. I used to take everything for granted, but I was still standing. I was still there. Life is a gift. Every day is a gift.”
Francois’ gift was always for soccer. To this day, he’s got the speed, skill, overall ‘tools,’ as Lilley describes them, at a European level. He’s had those from the first time he stepped on the pitch.
But the earthquake unsettled his life, too. He sought a way off the island, both for a living wage and to live his dream of a higher level of sport. And since U.S. schools were already inquiring, his parents connected him with St. Benedict’s Prep School in Newark, N.J., he became one of the country’s most coveted recruits, and he landed a scholarship with the powerhouse University of Maryland.
That’s when the struggles took on a different look: He put up five goals in 24 matches as a freshman with the Terrapins, but subpar academics forced the program to redshirt him as a sophomore. That was too long to sit idly, so he entered into the Major League Soccer draft pool for 2014. That didn’t go well, either, as D.C. United claimed him off waivers but never found a use. So he hooked up with something called the Baltimore Bohemians, and then the Richmond Kickers of his current league, USL. Next, he flew overseas for a two-team stint in Portugal’s second division.
“I was everywhere,” Francois recalled. “I was looking for a home.”
He finally found one with Lilley in upstate New York, signing with Rochester at this time last year. Lilley’s reputation precedes him in most soccer circles: He’s smart, he’s passionate, but above all, he pushes. He squeezes every bead of sweat from every player.
Just not this one.
“I have players, to this day, where I have to tell them to try harder, to give me more,” Lilley said. “I’ve never had to do that with Christiano. I’ve never once had to question or even think about his effort. He’s special for me in that regard.”
Which might explain the instant mesh.
“Bob … I liked Bob right away,” Francois said. “I knew what he wanted from me, and he knew what I wanted from him.”
This was home, it seemed. He’d start only 10 matches for the Rhinos, limited by injury, but he’d still lead the roster with six assists, then return to start when the side lasted two rounds deep into the USL playoffs. He’d play an integral, trusted role.
But at season’s end, the franchise declared bankruptcy, Lilley was lured away by the Riverhounds’ owner, Tuffy Shallenberger, and Francois knew without hesitation where the next home would be.
“I had to come with Bob. I had to.”
No surprise, but Francois has fit right in. Lilley has him aligned at attacking winger on the right edge, with a mandate to cut to the center of the field as needed, and it’s been productive: He’s got a goal and two terrific assists through seven preseason matches, and they’ve essentially followed the script. On one goal I witnessed 10 days ago, he made an aggressive turn to the inside, intercepted a clear, then slid the ball to Kevin Kerr across the top of the box for the simplest of finishes.
Also, no surprise, but Francois is seriously happy here, from the sound of it:
He’s still giving his all, but Lilley’s still pushing, too. That’s the relationship. When the Hounds were introducing their rebranding and new kits at the stadium last month, Lilley playfully introduced Francois to the 250-plus on hand as ‘the Haitian Sensation,’ drawing a little laughter but a big roar from the Steel Army supporters.
“Yeah,” Francois would say. “I like that.”
Lilley turns drop-dead serious when the subject is soccer, though, and this isn’t an exception. He wants to see more instinctive work from Francois, more of an inclination to take off vertically and put that speed to its best use. After the aforementioned feed to Kerr, the coach immediately summoned Francois toward the sideline to chide him for failing to seize precisely such a moment seconds before the goal.
“He’ll be a big part of what we do, and I’m sure fans will enjoy watching him play. He’s very visible,” Lilley said. “But I see those tools, and I know he can still become so much more as a player. That’s what I’m looking forward to seeing this summer, for him and for our team.”
In a way, for as heavily as the Hounds are loading up the roster with aims of instant contention this summer — and it’s already by far the best collection of talent this franchise has seen — Francois might embody the personality best. He’s got the pedigree to perform at a higher level, the belief that he can do it, and the drive to achieve it.
“I’m so lucky to be here,” he said, motioning toward the Downtown skyline across the Mon. “I think about it every day. I always appreciate it.”