An American pro in Prague: Franny Cerna's Czech roots lead to unique career

If you told a young Franny Cerna  that one day she'd play against the U.S. national team, she wouldn't have believed you.

Growing up in Berkeley, California, she followed the U.S. women, enjoyed watching them win championships, and idolized Alex Morgan, whom she often saw play while attending Cal games. Then her own soccer exploits and her parents' heritage led her to the Czech national team and a pro career with Slavia Praha.

Last February, she took the field against the USA in the SheBelieves Cup in front of friends and family.

“My coaches told me I was going to sub in and I was so close to saying, 'Uh, no! This is way too scary," Cerna says. “I went in and Emily Sonnett tried to dribble around me and I got the ball from her. It went a lot better than I thought. It was a really special moment.”

Cerna and the Czech Republic drew, 0-0, with the defending World Cup champs — a huge result for a team that has never qualified for a Women's World Cup.

“We showed everyone how we play,” Cerna said.

Last month, Cerna wrapped up her third season at Slavia Praha, which has won five of the last seven Czech league titles. Praha, which lost only one league game all last season, won the 2021-22 Czech First League and cup double. Cerna started every game, notching 10 goals and 10 assists in 25 games. In September, Slavia Praha will play off for a spot in next season’s UEFA Champions League group stage.

“We’re finally playing like a team, together, and it has really paid off,” Cerna said. “The celebrations were awesome ... confetti, champagne, everything ... and the men honored us at their last home game — almost 20,000 people chanting for us.”

Roman and Margit, Cerna’s parents, immigrated to California from the Czech Republic in the late 1980s before the Velvet Revolution. Roman, who knew Margit peripherally from school, brought her to the San Francisco Bay Area for a “vacation” — the two never looked back.

Cerna grew up playing club soccer for the Berkeley Mavericks and in her teenage years moved to Bay Oaks Botafogo, a highly competitive girls team from which five others went on to the pros. San Francisco-born Stephanie Zuniga, now on El Salvador's national team, has played for Brazil’s Cruzeiro and Poland's Medyk Konin. Aerial Chavarin plays for Mexico's Pumas Femenil in Mexico. Erin Greening played for the Orlando Pride before a stint with Klepp IL in Norway’s Toppserien. Carlin Hudson played for the North Carolina Courage, Washington Spirit and France's Guingamp. And Kyra Taylor played for Iceland's Fylkir.

Franny Cerna (kneeling, 3rd from right) with Bay Oaks Botafogo. Also going pro from the Oakland-based team: Standing: Erin Greening (third from right), Carlin Hudson (second from right), Aerial Chavarin (far right); Stephanie Zuniga (kneeling, far right).

Bay Oaks Botafogo head coach Jon Nishimoto says the team was so competitive that girls drove from Modesto — almost two hours away — to play with the team. Even so, Franny was one of the top performers.

“Franny is one of the hardest workers I've ever met,” Nishimoto said. “And she always did it with a smile on her face. When she cares about the community she’s in, that kid’ll give you her heart.”

At Berkeley High School, Cerna scored 35 goals and 14 assists in her senior year and attracting college offers from several Division I schools. She chose DePaul University in Chicago and thrived there, notching 33 goals and 14 assists in 77 games.

She connected with Slavia Praha while in Prague for Christmas vacation in 2018 with her family. Cerna knew some of the young women from the U-19 Czech national team and fit right in. She debuted with the full Czech national team midway though her second season. Cerna has made 12 appearances for the Czech Republic.

“Seeing what the U.S. does for their players and knowing what we have here ... it can sometimes make you jealous,” Cerna says. During the SheBelieves Cup in February, her national team received police escorts before games, a first for her and her teammates. Fans recognized them on Venice Beach. “There is still so much work to do for the Czech Republic and many countries in Europe."

Slavia Praha plays in an eight-team league and draws about 300 fans to matches. The players have their own field but aren’t entitled to use the men’s team’s gym. For away games, players leave on a bus the day of the match and arrive, in Cerna’s words, “broken from the bus.” Some players on her team have a day job, though Cerna says that isn’t necessary to live comfortably and wages do rise every year.

Slavia Praha's men's team was founded in 1896. The women's team was founded in 1970 and the club is considered a pioneer in Czech women's soccer. But its workplace environment remains behind the times.

“Inappropriate jokes are made about our body or clothes," Cerna says. "[The club staff] think it's so funny. I’m always stuck between thinking whether or not to make a stand and say something. ... It's never anything terrible. I've heard worse stories, but it's still uncomfortable and I shouldn't have to deal with it.”

It helps to have great teammates whom she’s gotten closer with through years of playing day in and day out in the Czech capital. “To be able to do what you love as a job ... it’s kind of crazy. I wouldn’t be doing anything else,” she says.

What’s next for the 24 year-old? Cerna considers a move to a new team in a new country. Her European Union passport makes movement easier, and different countries with more established leagues could offer more financial security and a better playing environment. But Prague is a tough city to leave.

“My mom grew up here," she says. "I walk the streets that she walked. The architecture, the nature, the food, the clubs. It’s non-stop fun. That’s probably why I’ve been here so long.”

1 comment about "An American pro in Prague: Franny Cerna's Czech roots lead to unique career".
  1. uffe gustafsson, June 11, 2022 at 9:37 p.m.

    I do remember that team, my daughter played a cpl of year younger on bay oaks team. Very nice article and yes that team was very good. 

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