Featured / Union

The other Farfan (and other displaced midfielders)

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:

  1. That was a crazy sequence.
  2. When was the last time Gabriel Farfan put a shot on goal?
  3. 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.


  1. James "4-3-3" Forever says:

    Whoa … I never realized how much sense it made to put Garfan as the third midfielder in place of Lahoud/Gomez.
    I think it’s a great idea, clearly he has the attacking skill but playing LB for a year would also give him enough defensive chops to be able to cover the ground that slot requires.
    All we need is a real LB – but the window is still open right?

  2. I assumed this was the plan when the Union brought Porfirio López this offseason—in my opinion the first unmitigated signing disaster in the team’s history. Garfan is an improvement over Lopez in every way; whether he’d be better as a midfielder is somewhat irrelevant, because there’s just no room for him.

    We have too many midfielders, and then when we make big signings (Adu, Gómez) or sign homegrown players (Pfeffer, Hernández, McLaughlin)? More midfielders. It’s like the Union always look for the “best available” player, and lo and behold the players with the best all around skills are midfielders. And so we have a roster full of undersized, mobile players who are great on the ball, many of whom can’t sniff the field. It works for Spain and Barcelona, I guess.

  3. I don’t get the argument. You said it yourself, we play a 4-3-3 that on offense turns into a 3-3-1-3 (Okugo-Carrol-Valdes)-(Garfan-Gomez-Williams)-(Marfan)-(Pajoy-Jack-Adu). In this system we need outside backs who are extremely athletic because they need to be up and down the field, they also need to be extremely skilled because they are required to pass in triangles when the ball is in the middle 3rd and then get to the end line with crosses in the final 3rd. This requirement will not be easily met, however, the Union have two perfect outside backs who fit that description in Williams and Garfan. Yet, we want to move one to put where? Garfan is not a holding type midfielder nor we he supplant his brother as the #10, also, why would we want him to replace Lahoud or Gomez- those two are asked to linked the backline with the front line, switch the field and make late runs into the box- never are they expected to beat a defender 1 v 1 or to make darting runs away from their large defensive requirements. That means Garfan would be expected to play as a wing in the top of the 3. Could he do this? sure, but why? His skill set is similar to Adu, he beats people 1 v 1 and can send in a good ball. He is not a F, he is not overly speedy (Martinez), he does not head the ball well (Pajoy) or should we expect him to be cerebral at teasing the the backline and making runs (Jack, Hoffman, Hopp).

    Yes, if we switch back to a 4-4-2, there is a spot for Garfan to play, but in a 4-3-3 he is in his best position to help the team, he fits all the requirements of a outside back and what we need. If it aint broke, dont fix it, especially when you’re trying to fix a position that is extremely hard to find skilled players at.

    • Not sure if your comment is to me or James, but if it’s to me …

      Garfan is a player. 4-3-3 is a formation of the moment that was initiated while Nowak was still manager. Only one of those things is guaranteed to stay the same come the offseason.

      That the Union are playing well in a 4-3-3 doesn’t change the fact that no player on the roster has shown he’s really natural at playing that winger role — well, except probably a couple of guys named Farfan who don’t play there. But really, I’m not arguing for or against anything — and certainly not for Garfan to play holding midfield. (I’ll add to the post accordingly to make that clearer.) This post is observation, not argument.

      • I guess I took the article to relate to the 4-3-3 formation because we are playing it now and because we are playing it well. I don’t know what Hack will do next season, we seem to have a glut of holding mids and speedy forwards who could play on the wings, so as the roster stands I don’t mine sticking with a 4-3-3, especially without a target forward.

        I agree that Garfan’s skill are def. of a outside midfielder but I just think what he could be with a couple more years at left back and you could def. imagine him on the national team (well not ahead of Fabian Johnson, but against the past LBs then yes).

        Left and right sided midfielders in MLS, especially in 4-4-2, seems to have a very low ceiling. Either a player is extremely fast and can get to the endline or he is very good with his inside foot and can cut in and either take a shot or make a killer pass. These players are def. not dime a dozen but it seems most teams can field a decent player who can do one of these qualities. I think Garfan at RW he would just fall into one of these categories and be an above average winger. Yet, at LB he seems to have the potential to be much better than most players in MLS.

        To the rest of the article, it is crazy how many players Nowak has moved around. It is def. worrisome for guys like Cris Hernandez or Jimmy Mc to be played all over the field, rather than develop at one spot.

      • Yeah, that’s a fair point, regarding the formation. It’s probably something I should’ve specified in the post. I didn’t think of clarifying that, of course, until you mentioned it. You see, it all made sense inside my head. 😉

        In fact, they’re all good points, and I agree with most of them. That’s why it struck me as an interesting topic to write about. What DO you do with Garfan and all these guys? It’s not so much that Hackworth will tinker. It’s more how he undoes all the tinkering.

      • James Korman says:

        Great post. I totally agree. He has the potential to be a special player on the back line. I personally think he has more upside there.

  4. JediLos117 says:

    I’m still not a fan of G. Farfan at LB and view him as a short term solution there…should be interesting to see what the coaching staff whether its Hackworth or not decide to do in the off season with our team of midfielders…

    • Philly Cheese says:

      Garfan still needs to find a way to be aggressive without throwing elbows, or knocking people around unnecessarily, wherever he is played. I hate that his play cost the Union the PK by Dynamo. There have been other times where he has gotten away with hits that will cost us games in future,

      • I get what you’re saying. People were pissed about that PK in Houston and they should be, it was the right call.

        But I think it’s gamesmanship and I think he’s good at it. When we beat KC 4-0 he was all over Kamara the whole game. The second half all KK did was complain to the officials.

        I say let him do his thing. It works for him.

      • James Korman says:

        I agree- both about the Houston game (f#ck!) and also about letting him do his thing. He is getting better and better in my opinion.

  5. Good LB’s are very hard to come by (just look at the National Team who were without a good one for years). So while I buy your argument it is unlikely to happen. I rather see him get better and better at LB.

  6. Section 116 says:

    There’s no question that’s where he belongs and that Hack sees this is one of my top reasons for optimism about the squad.
    A 2013 midfield rotation of Farfan/Farfan/Okugo/Gomez/Torres and, if he’s still here, Adu is a very solid side for next year. And you can keep some of the kiddies (Pfieffer, Hernandez, McLaughlin) around for depth and reserve matches and/or loan them out.
    A back line of Williams/Soumare/Valdes/Real LB in front of a maturing McMath is a title-worthy defense. But we need a left back and some depth beyond Gaddis — who is a fair backup at both fullback spots.
    Which leaves strikers. Jack and Hoppenot are part of the mix. But what else? Hoffman? Hopefully. Pajoy? Maybe. Martinez? Only if he shows a lot more.
    But if you delete Albright, Carroll, Daniel, Jordan, Lopez, Perlaza, Witkowski and maybe Lahoud and Pajoy, you have several spots and more than enough money to fill in the LB and find some more real help up front. And at least two of these guys, including the LB, need to be better than useless in the air.

    • Philly Cheese says:

      I agree with some of your “older player” analysis. However, I tthink developing the “youngsters” for a couple of years….Jordan and Witkowski for example….doesn’t cost us much. Would we have thought Okugo was ready to step up to 90 minute regular at CB without a couple of years of frustrating, only periodic opportunities? Hoffman has long history of proven ability to finish…….when healthy and with a 4-3-3 format. Don’t lose him because he hasn’t excelled yet in year one.

      • Section 116 says:

        I’d have alot more faith in Jordan if he wasn’t drafted with the intention of playing him out of position. A Nowak Special. And I think we’ll have a better sense of his potential after tonight’s match.

        Witkowski is not only a Nowak Special, but he also is a Twellman Special. Concussions really such for young professionals, and they are likely to recur if you suffer a serious one.

        FWIW, I think most knowledgable fans knew that Okugo was ready to play 90 at CDM and the only reasons we didn’t predict it more so was the presence of Brian Carroll and the expectation that Okugo would have spent most of the year captaining the Olympic Team. That said, his performance out of position has been a pleasant surprise.

  7. Pretty glad Hack said they were done tinkering. While I think Gabe has great skills, I’m happy to have I’m as LB. Enough tinkering. If it ain’t broke, can we please have a series of games without trying to fix it?

  8. Garfan is the Union’s Fabian Johnson, I don’t think we can do without him on left back. He brings more to the table in that position than anyone has thus far, even Harvey. Would he excel as MF? Sure, but in a crowded midfield, we need him where he is. He just needs to cut down on the overly aggressive challenges, which have put the team in some sticky situations this season (red card, Ching PK).

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