Photo: Earl Gardner
Interviewer’s question: “What position do you like to play?”
Michael Farfan: “Right midfielder — I receive it and I pass it…Yeah…[laughter]“
– Farfan’s interview with Mexican media on Saturday
Philadelphia Union just parted with the last creative first team midfielder they had left.
Michael Farfan’s transfer to Cruz Azul isn’t a shocker. He’s a talented player who was one of the Union’s most valuable players in the transfer market, likely entering the final year of his contract, and part of a logjam at right midfield in which he was (wrongly) the odd man out instead of (rightly) the first choice. The move may be good for him: More money and an opportunity to play in a more technical league that may better suit his style.
But it is a kidney punch for much of the Union fan base.
The loss of Farfan himself may not be what has the greatest impact.
It’s that Michael Farfan represented what Union fans wanted their team to be.
Farfan represented attractive soccer. Excitement. Creativity. Straight out fun. A player who should be entering his prime.
Now that is gone.
When Farfan was on his game, you never knew what he might do with the ball. You always hoped it was one of those ankle-breaking moves in which he dribbled through multiple defenders, danced along the end line like a tightrope, and found an open player cutting toward goal. He displayed the technical ability and flair of the Mexican game and the hard-nosed, working class approach that Philadelphia fans often love.
Farfan was particularly entwined in the team’s fabric, as he and his twin brother, Gabriel, comprised one-fifth of the starting outfield for much of his tenure. They both brought a clear style to the team, displaying the physical approach the Union are known for while incorporating fantastic, creative dribbling ability. Gabriel was the funny man in the locker room and aggressive red card waiting to happen on the field, while Michael was the quiet and more withdrawn of the two but almost as fierce on the field.
The American game doesn’t produce many players like Farfan. Bruce Arena once famously described Clint Dempsey’s creativity by saying, “He tries sh*t.” That also describes Michael Farfan when he’s in his comfort zone. Anyone who remembers that chipped goal against Real Madrid can attest to that. For some observers, including this one, no Union player was as enjoyable to watch as Michael Farfan. (His brother was often a close second.)
But Farfan was too often out of that comfort zone in 2013, having been shuffled around midfield by Union manager John Hackworth. It was Peter Nowak who first moved Farfan to center midfield, and Hackworth one-upped that by occasionally playing Farfan on the left as well. While Farfan could adequately play all three attacking midfield roles, he was more dynamic and comfortable on the right side. In the end, he became a less preferred option than Danny Cruz, an athletic, tough sprinter who lacks Farfan’s creativity, vision, touch and defensive consistency.
Plenty of subtractions, but where are the additions?
Three weeks after the season’s final game, a busy off-season has seen the Union yet to improve their roster.
Hackworth has indicated his preference for proven MLS players as a means to improve a team, but the Union have largely sat out the busiest period of veteran movement within MLS. A notoriously impatient and pessimistic fan base has some justification for their pessimism.
Meanwhile, D.C. United has added six regulars over the last two weeks. Toronto has added four, with Jermaine Defoe possibly on his way. The conference’s bottom dwellers are closing the gap with the 7th place Union.
In the Union’s defense, they have plenty of time, particularly with the international transfer window opening in January.* To add players, you often have to clear the deck first. A decent transfer fee for Farfan would provide more revenue to acquire the No. 10 playmaker the Union need. A full transfer of Carlos Valdes would add even more financial flexibility. The Union have seven picks in the MLS amateur draft’s first three rounds and could leverage some of those picks in draft day trades. Hackworth and top assistant Rob Vartughian have traveled to Europe and Latin America on off-season scouting trips, and foreign signings are anticipated as a result.
The Union’s only addition has been Corben Bone, however, a good, low-risk pick in the Re-Entry Draft who nonetheless remains the near equivalent of a trialist. Union fans have been predictably unimpressed.
The public relations fiasco surrounding Farfan’s move hasn’t done the Union any favors either, as the MLS web site linked to Mexican news reports while the league office forbade Philadelphia, San Jose and Los Angeles from commenting on the deals for Farfan, Rafael Baca and Jose Villarreal. The Union still have serious baggage from the Peter Nowak era when it comes to transparency, and the club’s inability to confirm the deal while Farfan was being introduced in Mexico is a setback to their otherwise admirable efforts to increase transparency and restore credibility with fans.
A creativity deficit
Farfan’s departure makes him the longest tenured player ever to leave the Union. No player has spent three years with the team and then left.
Seeing popular players depart is not a new experience for Union fans, however. So many have done so in the Union’s short, four-year existence that they could fill out a fairly solid lineup.
This past spring, the Union had four creative midfielders on their roster in the Farfans, Kleberson, and Roger Torres. Now they have none.
Hackworth has talked of preferring a possession-oriented, attacking team, but he has discarded the types of midfielders necessary to create that model and kept the types of players that American soccer critics deride as “run fast, try hard” players. Michael Farfan’s creative and technical play might represent the type of team Hackworth says he wants, but Danny Cruz’s kick-and-chase style represents the team he actually has. It does not inspire confidence in fans that the Union will ever achieve Hackworth’s stated preferred model.
The pressure is on now for the Union to produce some solid acquisitions soon to allay the concerns and frustrations of the fan base. January is Put Up or Shut Up time.