From Farfantastic to Farfanless

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man in the locker room and aggressive red card waiting to happen on the field, while Michael was the quiet and more withdrawn of the two but almost as fierce on the field.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.


  1. It’s not so much that I consider Farfan irreplaceable. Instead, the worst part of the offseason is what it tells us about the players STILL on the team.
    Cruz should not be starting. With on less wide player here, it looks like Cruz is still a starter for us. Same as Le Toux. He was good last year, but he is no natural winger.
    Same with Carrol. He should be on the way out. But with Valdes staying away, with Okugo being trapped at CB, it looks like Carrol is on course to continue being captain and starting for us.
    These things are just as bad as the lack of transfer movement in.

  2. Couldn’t agree more – the Farfans were not playing well here in the last 18 months, the loss of their production is not what’s troubling.

    The problem is that we are apparently either (a) directionless, or (b) being directed by an inexperienced, naive, youth coach who is in way over his head. I’m not too happy with either possibility.

  3. YEAH. I’m settling in for a long uncomfortable season- and I’ll bet you a drink Danny Cruz starts the first game in March.

  4. Maybe they’ll bring back josue Martinez!!!!! I don’t think any other team on THE PLANET would take Danny Cruz over Michael Farfan. I understand he probably wanted to leave also and it’s a business, but the wrong guy left. Of course WE all know no one would take Danny Cruz.

  5. Union Rumors says:

    And by “January transfer window” you really mean February 12th. See Section IIIB of the following link:
    Not really sure why it’s listed under “Methods of Releasing Players”, however.

    • No, I meant what I wrote. I know the rules. They may not formally request a transfer certificate until February, but the deals typically happen in principal in January during the international transfer window. For example, the announcement that Carlos Valdes and Faryd Mondragon were joining the Union came in January 2011. Since it was apparently unclear what I meant, I’ll edit for clarity.

      • Union Rumors says:

        No offense meant, but can you provide a link (FIFA or otherwise) to this all-encompassing January transfer window?
        Yeah, Mondragon & Valdes may have been announced in January, but I believe there was a footnote about being available after all the visas, certificates, and additional paperwork being received. There isn’t a single transfer window which applies to every federation, and to say as much seems pretty naive. There may be some overlap between them, and player announcements could happen before those windows open (especially when players are out of contract), but new acquisitions aren’t eligible to play until the respective window is actually open.
        North America & Canada do not, technically, have a transfer window in January. Again, see link I provided previously.

      • Really? I mean … seriously? Hm. Well. OK.
        Nikolov and Soumare deals around the summer window.) Most transactions in international soccer will be discussed and/or agreed to in or around January or July/August. Hence, the common colloquial references throughout professional soccer to a January transfer window and a summer transfer window. (Is July summer everywhere though? Not south of the equator.) Obviously, the transfer certificates for Valdes and Mondragon would not have been available until the actual MLS transfer window, as specified by the rules, but it doesn’t make a difference the delayed certificates don’t prevent the players from joining the teams for preseason.
        Any other hairs you want to split? You don’t have to condescend to us or our readers (that reader was obviously joking) to show you’re smarter than us. We’ll even concede the point and get you a t-shirt.

      • Union Rumors says:

        You cite Wikipedia as a source. You win.
        I’ll take a men’s large, thank you very much.

      • I thought you’d like that. 😉
        Ed, hook him up. We just need a name and mailing address.

  6. John O'Donnell says:

    Player out of contract available on free transfer, Ronaldinho = Shock the Dooping World! I think this guy could sell a few tickets and help the team.

  7. “He displayed the technical ability and flair of the Mexican game and the hard-nosed, working class approach that Philadelphia fans often love.”
    Marfan, I think, was the Union’s best shot to date of having a player that could draw in the average Philadelphia sports fan. He had the skill on the ball required to get highlights, and he had the hard-nosed nature we love here in Philly. Obviously, it’s not *fair* to put that sort of task upon one player; far better would’ve been for the team to follow up the fantastic 2011 season with something other than being Novaked.
    But it’s a real interesting “what if” scenario with Michael. What if Hackworth left him at right mid and let him play his game? Does he build on the all-star appearance and become a star? Does he fade anyway? I dunno. I sure would’ve loved to find out, though.

  8. Given that there were three teams, not just the Union, who lost players, and given the gag order MLS has put on the teams, is it possible this move was put together by the league, and not really the Union’s choice?

    • No. I feel quite the opposite. These are the types of players the MLS needs to keep. Young skilled players with a lot of potential.

    • Great question. The Union almost certainly had to sign off on it, but if they didn’t, that would be a big deal. I think the deal was probably coordinated on the MLS side by the league office. It would have to be with three teams involved.

  9. If this means Le Toux gets the starting RM role, I have no problem with this. Pre-injury, his 2013 production was fantastic, especially for a position he was unaccustomed to. A similar performance in 2014 is entirely possible. If the starting RM role goes to Cruz, however… we’re in trouble.

    I know we’re still waiting for the transfer window to open and there’s plenty of time for the Union FO to make some moves, but it would be really nice to hear of SOMETHING in the works. The lack of even an unsubstantiated rumor or two is unsettling.

  10. The conference’s bottom dwellers are closing the gap with the 7th place Union.

    They haven’t closed the gap . . . they’ve leap-frogged us. I don’t think any single signing will prevent us from being bottom of the Eastern Conference next year. Remember they had 5 wins and 4 ties in games when they finished with more players than their opponent last year. That’s 19 points in 9 games, they only got 27 points from their other 25 games. They just will not get that lucky again in 2014

  11. What I don’t understand is how the FO thinks they will be able to do anything other than ride the plane into the ground with the approach they are having. Many teams are sellers around the world but you must buy sometimes and create talent always. I just don’t see the pipeline. 3 years ago it seemed to be there. last year we had some youth to build around. now it appears we have cast-offs and a few young talents with no one to lead them. I hate to sound down and I will go no matter what but I do know that many will not if the talent and excitement is not there. I just can’t believe that year after year the team has contracted not expanded and I am not hopeful they will make a real move.

  12. I think the interesting thing is that if they are serious about going to a 4-3-3, farfan really didn’t fit. He really is best suited as right mid in a 4 -4-2. When given the chance this season he didn’t produce as a central attacking mid and I don’t see him as a classic box to box mid either.
    While I don’t know if Bone is one of these things either, I think he at least has a chance to be. For me the big takeaway from the Farfan deal is that they are serious about going to a 4-3-3.

  13. Good for Michael. Mexico will be a good move for him. He really has not looked the same since Pajoy left town in 2012. Those two seemed to have a good understanding on the field. Farfan would lead Pajoy wide. Pajoy would hold and drop it back to Farfan around the 18 and Michael would make some things happen. Pajoy helped make Michael an all star (even if Pajoy could not score as adverstised).

    I am not disappointed to see him leave. I am disappointed that a club that recognizes improving the midfield as its number one priority has done nothing to this point to improve the midfield. The window to add quality proven MLS talent is closing and foreign transfers into this league are almost always a crap shoot.

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