Stepping It Up

Dom Francis figured it was just about time for him to step it up. And he has -- spectacularly.

After totaling 29 goals over 54 matches in his first three Major Arena Soccer League seasons, the 26-year-old Englishman already has found the net 10 times this young campaign, good for second place in the Major Arena Soccer League scoring race.

"My first two years I really didn't play too much," he said. "Normally, it's in your third year you start to grasp the hang of it and go from there. I kind of see it’s my third year playing, with the amount of games I've actually played in.

"We lost a lot of goals last year. They were looking for someone to step up, whether it was me or somebody. It's been nice I've been able to step up. Obviously, I just don't want it to be one off. I want to keep building on it."

Now, it should be noted that eight goals have been scored against the Rochester Lancers, who are using a relatively inexperienced team in their return to the MASL. But a goal is a goal is a goal.

"You want to say he scored against Rochester, but we lost 4-3 to Utica and he had two goals against them," Heat general manager and head coach Pat Healey said. "I think people will say they're good team."

Francis recorded a pair of hat-tricks and a brace -- in three contests against Rochester.

"At the end of the day, it really doesn't matter," he said. "Whoever we're playing we still have to go out and score goals. Rochester is going to get better. They are getting better. For us to play them so many times this early, I think it’s going to be tougher for us as opposed to just playing Milwaukee once. We'll start to figure each other out and games will get closer eventually."

Recently, Francis made headlines off the pitch, signing a five-year contract extension with the Heat (3-1) through the 2024-25 season, on Dec. 11.

Management was thought it was good to secure such a talent and player thought it was good to get some security.

"Over the summer we met and talked a lot," Healey said. "He wanted to be here. We wanted him to be part of the organization. He's got some roots now in the area. It makes sense to make this a long-term thing. I'm comfortable with him, he's comfortable with us. So, it just makes sense. He's going to be here for the rest of his career kind of thing."

During the offseason, Francis has worked at Heat camps and clinics.

"I know there's a few more guys that are the core of the team that are going to be here for a while. which is good to have," he said. "I wanted to plan ahead, especially with my visa. I wanted to get myself a whole year."

Francis talked to club owner Carl Delmont.

"I think the longest visa you can get is five years. They matched the visa," he said. "I am here for the long term, but it's up to me to perform; more priority in practice for the next five years. I still have to put in the work. I still have to earn my spot for the right to have my contract. It's not just all headlines and you've been given this. There's a lot of hard work to put into it."

In 2011, Francis used a student visa to journey to the USA to pursue a college degree. Like many kids growing up in Huddersfield, England, Francis was a football fanatic, playing and practicing the sport just about every day. In England, students finish high school at 16 before attending college. That's when he discovered a company that promoted players to study and play abroad.

Francis attended a showcase. Genesee Community College head coach Kevin Gaven, an Irish native, reached out to him and he wound up upstate New York.

"He likes to get internationals over and give them the opportunity," he said. I know it was only a community college, but they say coming from a different country it's the best way to go to college because you're kind of starting fresh, whereas if you go straight to a four year school it tough to get scholarships straight off."

It worked. In 2011 and 2012, he was a junior college All-American and the 2012 Region III player of the year as the No. 2 national goal-scorer while helping GCC reach the national championship game. He scored 39 goals during his two-year tenure.

"I know the quality varies on where you go," he said about two-year schools. "When we come over here, we have to take a placement test and none of our high school grades transfer in. It's a fresh start, basically. It kind of sucks, but community college is a great way around that. You're going to be taking lower classes and you're not going to be thrown straight into a four-year school. It gives you a nice little platform for two years where you can build and hopefully transfer out to a good school."

That opened the door for Slippery Rock University as he was the 2013-14 Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference newcomer of the year and earned recognition on the all-conference teams.

"I didn't want to go home," Francis said. "I wanted to play here professionally."

In the summer of 2015, Francis heard about Harrisburg. He impressed the management and signed with the team. But there was a hitch because he needed an employment visa. He wasn't a student anymore. Francis never played with Harrisburg in 2015-16 because the visa wasn't approved in time. 

"I went home to England and came back the following year, which wasn't too nice," he said. "It's a sad tale. I literally had to go across the border [to Canada] and come back in, just to change my visa over. When I tried to come back in, they said no, because essentially, I had two visas in place. I was still on my visit visa. my petition for my playing visa was still in process."

Francis went to Canada for four months, spending three of them in Vancouver. "I nearly got a visa in Canada, nearly got a job up there," he said.

Fortunately for the Heat's sake, that did not happen.

Slowly, but surely, the 6-foot, 165-lb. Francis has gotten the hang of the arena game. He scored nine goals in his rookie season in 2016-17, added six in 2017-18 before hitting his career high of 14 goals and six assists last year.

Healey, who competed against Francis when he played for the Baltimore Blast, took over the Heat coaching reins last year. He liked what he saw.

"He was a good technical player," he said. "Obviously, he has a good left foot. He's crafty. I thought he was a guy who was trying to figure out what position he was supposed to be. It happens in the indoor game. ... He was one of those guys trying to find his spot. When you see him day in and day out, I thought his mentality needed to change a little bit. Halfway through the year last year, it kind of all clicked for him. It also helps that he was in that third-year gap where it does click for you as an indoor player. I thought his mentality was great and it has led to some good things this year.”

So far, so good as the midfielder is on an early roll.

The Heat have found themselves with a steady diet of games against upstate New York rivals. After this weekend's bye, Harrisburg will visit Rochester on Dec. 27 and Utica the next night. The team will play at Rochester again on Jan. 4 and at Utica on Jan. 12 before hosting the Sonora Soles on Jan. 18.

It will be about then when Francis expected the team to really start to gel.

"We made a few changes. We got a lot of new guys again, which is also good," he said. "It's going to take a little while for those guys to get it. Obviously, everybody's different. They grasp things at different rates. We've gotten off to a good start. Pat keeps saying last year we were 1-7 to start the season. So, it's nice to be 3-1. Hopefully 5-1 after our next two road games.

"We just wanted to get off to a good start to build on. As soon as you start losing games early, you start to add pressure to yourself. But I think we haven't played to our best yet. You'll see within the next month. We'll finally to start to click and all the new guys will be eased into it. So far we've been playing good. We've been doing the right things for the most part."

Especially Francis.