A View from Afar

Elegy for Michael Farfan’s career and the Union that never were

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Michael Farfan retired this week.

Think about that for a moment. Michael Farfan.

He’s only 28 years old. Just six years ago, he became one of the best rookies in MLS. Five years ago, he was an all-star. Three years ago, he left Philadelphia Union via transfer for one of Mexico’s biggest clubs. In their eight seasons, perhaps no other Union field player dazzled, however episodically, like Michael Farfan.

Now he’s done with pro soccer.

How did it turn so quickly?

Mexico didn’t pan out. That transfer looked ill-advised from the get-go, with Farfan one of three MLS players going to Cruz Azul essentially en masse, and head coach John Hackworth quietly but clearly feeling one of his proteges had made the wrong call. Farfan got literally one game there – and scored a goal. And that’s it.

After he returned back to MLS, he wasn’t the same player who sometimes wowed Union fans in his first years, or if he was, he never got the chance to show it. Seven starts with D.C. United in 2015. Just a single substitute appearance with Seattle in 2016. Then he got cut in training camp with New York City FC this year.

What happened?

What went wrong?

Farfan entered the league as a right winger whose wondrous dribbling along the the edges of the field wowed people. Then-head coach Peter Nowak moved him to a central playmaker role in Farfan’s second season, and John Hackworth kept him there. After that, every MLS coach saw him as a central player.

They all had it wrong. He never wowed anyone centrally like he did on the right flank.

Could that be it?

Or did he just gradually lose the love for the game? Did he put less time and effort in on the training ground after his failed Mexico foray? Did his priorities change? Was there some injury we didn’t know about? Did the quality in MLS increase so much in just a few years that Farfan was left behind?

Or did he choose poorly when he picked teams to join and never find himself in a good situation? So many players go nowhere without the right coach and right team. Chris Wondolowski and Herculez Gomez are great examples of that.

Farfan said he leaves professional soccer with no regrets. Good for him. He plans to travel the world with his wife. Brilliant. Go, live life. There is a vast world out there, and it’s worth seeing. Farfan was the quiet, thoughtful twin, and while you could have chalked that up to his hearing problems, you only had to talk with him a few minutes to realize there was something more to him.

But rest assured, there are plenty of regrets for Farfan. We should regret never seeing Farfan develop into the player he could have been and, worse, that we’ll never see him play the game again, never watch him dance with a ball along the end line like an acrobat on a tight rope, never score another golazo against a major club.

The Union would-be stars who never were

Farfan’s departure leaves us this bit of an elegy not just for his soccer career, for the Union that were and never became more.

As a child, you grow up with athletic idols, and once you grow up, you never have them again. Usually, they’re the players who spend long careers with your home team. They may not be the best players, but something about them draws your innocent adoration, particularly if you see them break in as rookies and grow with the team. For me, growing up in the New York area, there were so many: Don Mattingly, Lionel Manuel, Mark Bavaro, Joe Morris, Willie Randolph, and pretty much everyone on the Knicks teams of the late-80s and early-90s, before James Dolan broke the franchise.

For early Union fans, it was Califf, Le Toux, Okugo, Williams, McInerney, and the Farfans. They’re all gone now, and Michael Farfan is the first of those Union “kids” to leave the game. None have flourished outside Philadelphia, despite other clubs acquiring them because they recognized their talent. Either these guys were never that good, in which case you all underestimated just how much John Hackworth coached them up, or, more likely, something else happened to each of them.

What fates awaits the young Union core of today?

Today, the Union are a very different club, with their core largely a cobbling together of journeymen veterans who have spent most of their careers elsewhere. It’s possible for fans to forge bonds with those types of players – Califf and Le Toux epitomize that – but not as likely.

So how will the younger players of today fare?

Will Keegan Rosenberry, Richie Marquez, Fabian Herbers, Andre Blake, Derrick Jones and others grow with the club and establish themselves as the long-term, core, foundational players that Union fans thought the Farfans, Okugo, Williams and McInerney would be? Will they stick around long enough for fans to ever see them as the face of the club?

Or will they cycle through and off to browner pastures like their predecessors?

Michael Farfan is embarking on a fascinating journey through life and around the world, but we won’t see the one we hoped he’d take.

As the 2017 season opens this weekend, one wonders how many more times Rosenberry, Marquez and Blake will sport the blue and gold on opening day.

16 Comments

  1. So in other words yet another case study where we F up a player by playing him out of position because of a honeymoon period.

    Hmmm where does this sound familiar?

    Garfan.

    Okugo.

    It’s happening with Edu.

    People want it to happen with Yaro.

    I’m sure I’m missing some other examples.

  2. Always loved that Marfan was not just skilled but played with a bit of an edge. Wish him the best.
    .
    Speaking of McInerney, he was just waived by Portland.

  3. James Lockerbie says:

    I wish him the best in his future endeavors. I enjoyed watching his play on the field at PPL Park

  4. The Chopper says:

    Farfan played his best with Lionard Pajoy. Those two seemed to have a good relationship on the field. Farfan would play it in, Pajoy would hold it up and then release Farfan down the flank. Pajoy wasn’t the goal scorer as advertised, but once he was traded, Farfan’s play dropped off noticably.

  5. Zizouisgod says:

    Oh, I’ll always remember him for that chip vs Real Madrid. Sure, it was only a friendly, but that shouldn’t take away from the brilliance of it. And as CPfeif mentioned above, Marfan was willing to get stuck in when needed which, judging by my handle, you all know how much I love skilled players who are willing to dish out a vicious tackle at times.

    I always felt that the young players during the Nowak ear really suffered. No, I’m not referring to the spanking, but to that lack of veteran leadership in the dressing room. Sure, we had some vets (Califf, Migs, etc), but you really need the right kind of vets who know when to pick a younger player’s spirits up when things aren’t going well or give them a kick in the butt (no pun) when they needed it. To me, the Union didn’t have that and had such dysfunction throughout that it must have made things tough for young players who are still learning what it means to be a professional.

    Professional sports is a cutthroat business and while you’re still a part of a team, you really are on your own as far as being able to make your way through your career in it. So any guidance that a young player can get along the way can make a big difference on how their career plays out.

  6. The player’s own decision-making plays a major role.
    .
    does the self-promotion engendered by the age of social media encourage sound, accurate self-evaluation?
    .
    How many of the list above over-reached themselves?
    .
    If Garfan had accepted being a left back, … ?
    .
    I hope like hell the see-the-world-with-the-wife has no hidden underlying sad subtext. That would make us all weep.

    • That’s a great point, one I didn’t get into in the piece because it was too long already. Four of the five overreached. Both Farfans made bad decisions to aim for Mexico. Okugo and McInerney also made bad decisions. Williams just dropped off in competition with Gaddis. But something made these guys all want to seek greener pastures, and I think suspect a large part of it was that Nowak poisoned the well for them early and the dysfunction of the Sakiewicz reign helped that dissatisfaction linger. They each thought they were better than their situation with the Union, and the truth is, maybe they were, but they underestimated just how difficult it is to find the right on-field situation with a coach who believes in you.

      • pragmatist says:

        In defense of the Farfarns, I believe both have dual citizenship with Mexico and had some grand ambitions of qualifying for one of the national teams.
        .
        But I could be relying on a failing memory.

  7. Dan, I have been feeling down about the upcoming season for a while now. That last sentence is echoing in my head like the voice of doom.

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