Photo: Earl Gardner
How do you improve on a third place finish in the 2011 Rookie of the Year voting, despite entering MLS as a second round pick?
Turn yourself into an unquestioned starter in 2012.
And that is exactly what Michael Farfan has done in his second professional season. Whether it is John Hackworth calling the shots or Peter Nowak before him, Farfan’s quality and versatility made him a staple for both coaches. Outside of a match missed against Montreal with a groin injury and a suspension for yellow card accumulation, Farfan featured in 100 percent of the matches for which he was healthy and available, starting 28 times and coming off the bench once.
Not too shabby for a player who had to undergo an unexpected positional shift this season.
In a breakout rookie campaign, Farfan made himself an indispensable piece of the Union’s attack on the right flank, combining with Sheanon Williams as if they had been cohorts for years. While his guile and trickery on the ball drew the praise, Farfan also possessed the vision and timing to thread the needle on dangerous through balls and, unlike many of his teammates, he was willing, and able, to shoot from distance.
Despite having all of those attributes, it was still something of a shock when Nowak elected to move him into the center of the pitch, dissolving the right flank partnership that had tortured opposing lefts backs the year prior. The move was not all rosy for the newly-anointed playmaker, as he struggled to assert his influence on matches for an entire 90 minute period.
But Farfan slowly began to prove he was up to the job.
Comfortable in the chaotic traffic jam that is an MLS midfield, Farfan possesses the rare center midfield gene, the eye on the back of his head, somehow managing to extricate himself from even the tightest situations with the ball still at his feet. And unlike Freddy Adu or Roger Torres, Farfan has thrived amid the swing boots, knees and arms of some of MLS’ toughest defensive midfielders. Never shying away from the opportunity to use his body to either shield the ball or batter a would be tackler, Farfan adds steel to an already robust Union midfield. Additionally, since being forced into action at right back during his rookie season, he understands the importance of defending his position and is no stranger to mixing things up.
After all, it is his fiery attitude that has allowed him to remain aggressive when opponents, i.e. Perry Kitchen, try to kick him off the pitch.
At 24 years of age, Farfan is not labeled with the same sort of youth project tag affixed to many of his teammates, and in a year full of tumult, the savvy he has shown on the field will benefit both himself and the Union going forward. While he remains the most dangerous Union player with the ball at his feet, Farfan’s tremendous distribution has trumped the fancy-footwork he used to scorch defenders in 2012. When deployed centrally, his willingness to drop deep to pick up the ball from his backline has been critical, bypassing the offensively timid pairing of Brian Carroll and Michael Lahoud. From there, the entirety of the pitch has been at his disposal, whether it is spraying the ball wide to the advancing fullbacks, driving at the heart of the defense himself, playing tight quick passes with his fellow attackers, or weighting a perfect ball through the defense to any one of the Union’s rapid forwards.
While the Union’s failure to convert is a refrain that has been worn out over the past 31 matches, it has not been for a lack of creativity on Farfan’s part. Even when he does not play in the final ball directly, rewind the tape to the pass before. Chances are, Michael Farfan will have put a player into space, placing them in position to square, cross, drive the ball into the box.
And Farfan’s rising star is not simply a Philly phenomenon. When a late replacement was needed for the MLS All Star Game, DC United manager, Ben Olsen, i.e. the man who sent Kitchen after Farfan in the first place, selected the Union playmaker in a clear display of respect. That Farfan not only joined the ASG roster, but played a part in the 3-2 victory over Chelsea, announced his presence on the national stage.
Yet for all his quality, Farfan’s future with the Union is still up in the air. He will be here, fear not, but where exactly he lines up remains a mystery. Bringing in a veteran creative midfielder to help run the show for the Union could do wonders for a side lacking in technique and smarts through the midfield. The resulting move back to the right flank would certainly suit Farfan as he could rebuild his partnership with Williams and have some of the attacking burden lifted off of his shoulders. Returned to a wide role, his dazzling work on the ball could again take center stage, and his driving runs to the endline would force defenders to offer him a cushion, making cutting back into the center of pitch an easier task.
But with the Union roster full of need in other positions, keeping Farfan as his attacking fulcrum may end up suiting Hackworth just fine. With Jack McInerney (and hopefully a larger target forward) in front of him, and players like Danny Cruz, Keon Daniel, Freddy Adu and others on the wing, Hackworth might revel in the idea of developing a top tier MLS creator out of his already existing stock of players.
Whatever the decision, two things are clear. First, Michael Farfan will be on the field for the Union. And second, he has done more than enough over his brief two year career to have the coaching staff give him a position of his own where he can further grow and develop. Whether it is out on the right flank or running the offense through the center of the park, providing Farfan with continuity is the best thing for both the player and the club.
With another season to develop, he just might earn himself a look from Jurgen Klinsmann and the US National Team.