Photo: Paul Rudderow
It happened in the 79th minute Saturday.
Gabriel Farfan collected a Gabriel Gomez cross off one bounce just inside the 18. He went left before Montreal’s Davy Arnaud flew back to mark him. So Farfan spun 360 degrees back to his right and blasted a shot on goal, forcing Donovan Ricketts to make a diving save, followed by a second stop when Lionard Pajoy blasted back the rebound.
Three thoughts come to mind:
- That was a crazy sequence.
- When was the last time Gabriel Farfan put a shot on goal?
- Wouldn’t you like to see it more often?
No fullback in the league combines the attacking instincts, tricky ball skills and guts to dazzle with them that Farfan has.
Yet, in 2,540 minutes of playing time, he’s taken just four shots on goal: One each the last two league games, and two against Toronto on May 28, 2011, when he scored a goal while deployed as a right midfielder.
Therein lies the issue: As good as he’s becoming at left back, he remains a right-sided midfielder at heart, limited by his defensive responsibilities from indulging his attacking brilliance.
In that way, Farfan is part of the unwanted legacy former Union manager Peter Nowak left behind. The Union remain a team full of midfielders deployed out of position. That Farfan is flourishing as a left back doesn’t change that basic truth.
And he is flourishing, to be clear. It’s taken a year, but he’s adjusting nicely to the left back role, in part because he’s not really a fullback.
The Union’s outside backs play more like wingbacks. Farfan and right back Sheanon Williams act as wide midfielders on offense but must maintain some attacking restraint because their defensive responsibilities are those of a fullback. Brian Carroll’s presence at defensive midfield alleviates this to a degree. He can drop deep in the center against counterattacks, allowing Carlos Valdes and Amobi Okugo to spread wide to cover the flanks long enough for the wingbacks to get back on defense. It’s a style of play you’ve seen before in Spain.
In this system, Farfan looks on his way to becoming one of the best left backs in the US player pool.
Still, one can’t help but imagine what he could do if freed to play regularly as a wide midfielder, unrestrained by the need to run 70 yards back to cover the defensive left flank. Though he’s improved his defending, it remains his weakness as a left back. He has similar attacking instincts as his twin brother, Michael. Picture Gabriel Farfan making the runs he sees that other wingers are missing or sending the visionary through balls we occasionally see from him (and his brother), despite his defensive role.
No, Gabriel Farfan shouldn’t be moved from this position this year. Union manager John Hackworth rightly recognizes the team needs consistency right now. He can’t undo Nowak’s legacy that quickly.
When training camp rolls around next year though, don’t be surprised if the Union bring in a left back they’ve actually scouted and move Farfan back to outside midfield or winger, where he can combine more often with his brother. The prospect of two dangerous attackers who have played together all their lives offers tantalizing possibilities, particularly when one sees how often the Union’s other wingers don’t seem on the same page with Michael Farfan and Jack McInerney.
Likewise, Hackworth could use the offseason to figure out where some of his other young, displaced midfielders belong. The Farfans, Freddy Adu, Amobi Okugo, Jimmy McLaughlin, and Greg Jordan all joined the team as midfielders and were moved by Nowak to other positions. Even Keon Daniel has experienced it to a degree. He’s a good, stabilizing midfielder who doesn’t seem to fit any role in the Union’s new 4-3-3 (though one wonders what he could do as the second holding midfielder with Carroll).
Hackworth has plenty of time to decide whether Gabriel Farfan is a highlight reel left back or wide midfielder. Fortunately, so does Farfan.