Farfans highlight the differing development tracks

Photo: Earl Gardner

We live in a sporting culture here in the United States that is rather backwards compared to the way the rest of the sporting world operates. The real complicating factor is the collegiate athletic system in this country, which provides the development infrastructure for most American professional sports. The growth of soccer coverage in the mainstream US media has highlighted this dichotomy even more, especially with the emergence of the English Premier League on FOX Soccer and the more accessible ESPN. Fans of the EPL can see the way players are developed throughout a vast league system there and upon deeper examination realize this is a well-established norm throughout the organized football world.

Soccer in America has been spun towards the college ranks over the years, but more and more, MLS teams are developing their own players in sanctioned academies. The Union are planning to take that to the next level, with the news in May of the team looking to open an academy which follows the overseas model. What this is showing is that, at least in soccer, we have likely relied upon the collegiate route too much, and professional-style academies would benefit the North American game in the long run by bringing the league up to the standards established in the best club systems in the world.

But this dichotomy leads to some interesting examples.

Take the Farfan twins. Both attended IMG Soccer Academy in their youth, and both attended Cal State Fullerton. Both played for the US youth national team. They both played in the PDL during their time in college, but Michael went a step further down the college path and transferred to the University of North Carolina. He earned First Team All-American honors for his time in Chapel Hill. Gabriel instead went to Mexico and took part in the youth setup at one of the bigger clubs in Mexico, Club America.

We have been conditioned to place college athletics on a pedestal above most other forms of development. One big reason is the influence of the National Football League, a powerful entity which relies upon the collegiate route to develop youth candidates. The NFL consists mostly of American citizens who consider college a necessary educational step. They have hardly looked to any professional minor league teams that could eat into profits; their most recent attempt was the failed NFL Europe (which a fellow by the name of Don Garber helped lead).

But would you say that Michael’s route through the Tar Heel program to MLS was more beneficial? I’m definitely not sold on that, but again this is America, and Entry Drafts are king in America.

I’ve come to think Gabriel’s route was the more beneficial from a footballing standpoint. Mexico is a country where futbol is ingrained into the culture of the society, where kids play it from the time they are old enough to walk. Without any kind of method to watch or read about his development, the average fan could almost write off that part of his career. It’s a difficult task for a soccer fan to simply follow collegiate players heading into the SuperDraft (unlike in gridiron, where NCAA games litter the program guide in the fall). But would it be fair to consider that the training Gabriel received in a full-time club system in Mexico might be more beneficial than college soccer? I think that’s a distinct possibility.

But Gabe didn’t go through the normal scouting ranks, and so he was never drafted. In 2011, Michael was drafted in the second round of the SuperDraft after being highly touted out of UNC. Gabriel was signed by the Union early in the 2011 season—not highly touted, and almost as a kid who wanted to play alongside his brother at the MLS level.

If you walked up to the average American sports fan, they would probably say Michael is the more accomplished player, both at the time of the SuperDraft as well as today. That might be true, especially with his appearance last season on the MLS All-Star Team last year. But it may not be as clear cut as our American brains might assume.

With the kind of exposure to the talent in Club America’s system and throughout the Mexican leagues (albeit at the reserve level), it might make some sense as to why Peter Nowak turned to Gabriel after trading left back Jordan Harvey to Vancouver. Harvey was always being asked to get forward and provide width, and Gabriel definitely knew how to do that. While he wasn’t going to be the next Ashley Cole, he had carved out the position to close out 2011 and for the large part of 2012. He certainly was the best left back the Union had entering 2013.

Two twin brother midfielders, two different tracks.

One goes to Mexico, comes back, makes $50K a year (based on the salary info at the MLS Players Union site), gets shoehorned into an unnatural position, and never really gets a full-blown opportunity to prove himself on the pitch in his best role.

The other goes through the collegiate system, makes better than double his brother’s salary, receives multiple chances to play at multiple positions, and remains a player most consider to be a future star for the franchise.

So Gabriel is now at Chivas USA, and he could very well get his move back to Mexico, with the LA Goats appearing to have the equivalent of a garage sale happening at the Home Depot Center. (Whatever you do, don’t buy the couch.) It’s not exactly easy making ends meet on a $50K salary in Philadelphia, let alone in the inflated economy of California. If he gets his move, one hopes he gets a bump in his wage.

Michael has struggled in 2013 for the Union, with John Hackworth appearing to favor Keon Daniel in the central midfield role he occupied for much of 2012. He has not been the same since his All-Star appearance last year, failing to score and notching only 2 assists since coming on against Chelsea last summer.

That’s where this tale ends. Gabe and Mike are on different ends of the continent now, and the Union seem to have not gotten the most out of a talented pair of youngsters.

We’re now left with this to consider: Who is in the better situation now? Gabe Farfan at Chivas USA, a team that barely has the talent to compete at the MLS level anymore, patiently hoping for a call to pack his bags for Mexico? Or Michael Farfan, who continues to try and replicate what he once displayed with the team, but who has run himself into a bad batch of form and lost his position in the first XI?

Here’s hoping that in a couple of years, the heights they reach make 2013 a distant trough in their respective career paths.


  1. OneManWolfpack says:

    Nice work. While I like Michael, I think time will tell that we should’ve kept Gabe. In regards to the system we use in American soccer, I agree with you that the collegiate way does not prove to be as effective as the academies. In American sports we value championships… not development. Soccer players have to develop. We need patience.

  2. Interesting article Earl.

    Just one gripe:

    “If you walked up to the AVERAGE American sports fan, they would probably say…” ‘who are the Farfan twins?’

    Agreed that right now college sports still focus completely on the win-loss column rather than development, but I can see a future where this may change. It would require the skill development to happen at younger ages through youth club soccer. If the quality of college coaches improves, this could be the place where student-athletes learn not only higher level tactics, but also the demands of results-oriented soccer. Of course, they could also end up with a degree that will help them when their $50k/yr salary is taken away at age 30.

    • Earl Reed says:

      Fair enough…poor phrasing on my part. Should have been more like, “If you asked an average American sports fan to compare their pedigrees…”. Thanks for your feedback!

  3. Andy Muenz says:

    Actually, the model in soccer around the world isn’t that much different from the model in baseball 60 years ago when players came up through a vast minor league system. In between the Negro leagues and the Majors, even Willie Mays and Hank Aaron spent time in the minors.

  4. Aprilblues24 says:

    Nice article!

  5. Sean Doyle says:

    Let me play counter point here, I think the collegiate soccer system does work.
    Case in point, look at some of the key contributors from last night’s USMNT line-up. Gonzalez and Zusi (Maryland), Besler (ND), Dempsey (Furman), Brad Evans (UC-Irvine), Geoff Cameron (WVU), Brad Davis (St. Louis) all spent time in the collegiate system.
    There are a fair number of very good college programs (Maryland, UNC, Virginia, Akron, Notre Dame, Creighton, UCLA, etc.) that have been providing MLS with top talent for many years. The collegiate game allows players to continue to grow their game and mature, not every stud soccer player has to be identified as the “next” at age 14. The added benefit of collegiate soccer is thse guys leave school with a degree that will benefit them well beyond their pro soccer days.
    With the exception the IMG Academy, point to one other academy that has consistently produced MLS All-Stars?
    This is one of the most important debates going on in US Soccer and one for which I don’t think there is a right or wrong answer.

    • Good point, but for all of those players it may have been the only system available to them. I’m not sure that either system has left either Farfan in a better situation than the other one.

  6. Twenty-two is too old to start one’s pro career if one aims for greatness.

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