Professional soccer was not going to take root in Fresno without a little watering by Milton Blanco.
It didn’t matter whether Blanco was selling season tickets, playing midfield or coaching. Or, as things turned out, doing all three jobs rolled into one.
“He’s involved everywhere, man,” marvels Alberto Navarro, Blanco’s close friend and teammate on Fresno FC. “He’s all over the place. This guy, he doesn’t stop.”
Everyone in Fresno’s tight-knit soccer community knows Blanco, the Roosevelt High graduate who became a fan favorite during four stints with the amateur-level Fresno Fuego. But last summer, when Fresno FC began setting up operations for its inaugural 2018 season, management wanted the 33-year-old in the front office rather than on the pitch.
“When they approached me about doing ticket sales and different community events, of course I told them, ‘I would love to be a part of it,’ ” Blanco says. “At the same time, I wanted them to know that my main objective was to play for the team.”
Given Blanco’s lengthy soccer resume, which includes tenures with MLS, NASL and USL clubs, it wasn’t a preposterous suggestion. Still, there was a wee bit of eye-rolling.
“They always tell jokes, here and there – especially Frank,” Blanco says. “I had to prove myself. I had to start all over. They knew who I was, but they saw me as an older guy. You know, ‘He’s done. His legs are gone.’ I took it as a challenge.”
“Frank” would be Frank Yallop, the Foxes’ convivial general manager. It was he, along with head coach Adam Smith, who needed convincing.
“We didn’t want to stop a younger player from getting the chance to play,” Yallop says. “I told him, ‘I don’t want to stick you on the roster just because you’re Milton.’ He said, ‘I don’t want that. I want to earn my spot.’ And he has.”
Even though he had never worked in sales, Blanco instantly took to the job. He became the team’s top producer, responsible for more than a third of Fresno FC’s 1,600 season tickets, and ranked among the top 15 in the entire USL.
It’s easy to see why. Blanco has all the gifts and connections any salesman could want. He owns a beaming smile and knows a ton of people.
“Not just knows them, Milton has a relationship with them,” Yallop says. “There’s a difference. People like him.”
Despite his success selling tickets and organizing community events, Blanco refused to give up on his dream of suiting up for Fresno’s pro team. When a calf strain sidelined him for all the preseason matches, including an exhibition against Fresno Pacific, his former school, he kept his doubts to himself.
“I didn’t give them the option,” Blanco says. “Even when I was hurt I kept coming in for treatment. While I was still working in the office. I didn’t let them tell me ‘no.’ ”
Blanco’s stubbornness is a product of his childhood. Milton was a toddler when his mother left home and 10 1/2 when his father, a fairly notorious drug dealer named Santos Antonio “Tony” Blanco, was shot to death in southwest Fresno on May 5, 1995. The case has never been solved.
Suddenly orphaned, Blanco spent the next several years bouncing from relative to relative and family to family, never having his own room or even his own drawer. He slept on couches, floors, wherever there was room. Soccer became his escape, and his salvation.
“Milton didn’t have parents for most of his youth,” says longtime mentor and friend Jaime Ramirez, the former Fresno Pacific and Fuego coach. “Instead he used soccer as a way of establishing a family within the soccer community.”
Blanco returned to practice after his calf healed and showed enough to convince Smith to put him on the roster. But that wasn’t all. Noticing Blanco’s natural leadership skills and the way other players responded to him, Smith gave him the title of player-coach.
Which meant an extra set of responsibilities for the club’s top salesman and reserve midfielder.
“He can still add value to the team, for sure. Otherwise I wouldn’t have signed him as player,” Smith says. “He’s got the respect of everyone and is a huge asset to this organization.”
Blanco knows he can’t play forever. He understands that coaching and selling tickets gives him invaluable experience for his future endeavors. The reason he isn’t ready to hang up his cleats has less to do with ego and more about wanting to be an example for those who follow in his footsteps.
Through private tutoring and team-sponsored clinics and community events, Blanco is in contact with a lot of kids who grew up in similar situations. He wants those kids to watch him play and see a future version of themselves.
“Kids from the neighborhoods I grew up in come to the games to see me,” Blanco says. “They see that I came from the same area as them and they’re going to be me one day. … There are times when I’m exhausted, but I know I’m touching a lot of lives.”
Those aren’t the only kids Blanco feels responsibility for. He and finance Jenna Mendiola are raising a 9-month-old son named Stephen Xander. The couple met as seventh graders at Ahwahnee Middle School and have been together since their senior year at Roosevelt.
“Jenna’s been great,” he says. “She allows me to still play and has done a great job with the baby.”
Blanco made his Fresno FC debut May 16 during the squad’s U.S. Open Cup match at Lamonica Stadium. (He has since made two more appearances.) During pregame introductions, he fought off tears while cradling his infant in his arms.
At that moment, Blanco understood why he’s stretching himself so thin by playing, coaching and selling.
“I want Fresno FC to be here for years and now that I have my boy I’m thinking, ‘Hey, my boy might play on this team someday,’ ” he says. “Me selling a bunch of tickets is going to help make that happen.”
Marek Warszawski: 559-441-6218, @MarekTheBee
Fresno Foxes vs. Phoenix Rising FC
Saturday: 7 p.m. at Chukchansi Park
Records: Foxes 6-7-7, Rising 10-3-5