If there are two things that Philadelphia Union fans have craved over the last two seasons, it’s a steady lineup and a playmaking midfielder. It turns out that the first, combined with some shrewd personnel deployment, has begotten the second.
Michael Farfan, selected in the 2nd round of the 2011 SuperDraft, has been one of the most versatile players on the Union squad since his arrival. In 2011, Michael spend much of his time as a wide midfielder. Like his brother Gabriel, Michael even accepted deployment as a fullback after the trade of Danny Califf.
General wisdom had it that Roger Torres would latch onto the role of central creator, and he may still. But an injury in the preseason meant that former Manager Peter Nowak had to improvise.
For the first two months of the season, Nowak switched formations and personnel quite often from game to game. He tried two forwards, he tried three at the back, he tried a 4-5-1. By the time Nowak was let go in June, the Union had scored only 8 goals from 11 league matches – including an embarrassing 1-0 away loss to then-winless Toronto. Michael Farfan had started 7 times in a central midfield role before the firing, without much to show offensively.
That has changed since Interim Manager John Hackworth took over. Farfan has blossomed in that playmaker role in a 4-2-3-1. He’s pocketed a goal and four assists in that stretch, including the game winner in stoppage time against Los Angeles. He still has the skill of a winger to cross from the end line, and shown when he assisted Jack McInerney’s goal against the Galaxy. But where he is displaying a deeper skill set is in his vision and passing.
This couldn’t have been more evident than against Toronto, where he was credited with two assists, but each had its own beauty. The first was a Xabi Alonso-like looper that played McInerney into the right side of the area, setting up the goal by Gabriel Gomez. The second was another through ball, but this along the turf, brilliantly weighting the ball into Antoine Hoppenot’s path.
So what changed, besides the Manager? Perhaps the biggest change that has lent itself to this breakout is a tactical shift up front. Since taking over, Hackworth has employed the speedster McInerney (and Hoppenot late in matches) in the center forward role. In contrast, Nowak preferred a stouter Lionard Pajoy, who is more reminiscent of a target man than a fleet-footed poacher.
Teams are beginning to learn that they can’t simply play a high defensive line against the Union anymore. Such a tactic is perfect for a big man like Pajoy, but against well-timed pace it can be the death of a back line. When goals come in this fashion, most of the credit seems to go to the forward when they make a well-timed run into space. Yet it takes skill and vision for a playmaker to introduce that killer pass that rewards the striker’s run before the keeper snuffs it out.
John Hackworth now must feel wealthy in this department. Farfan cut his teeth in the role as the Colombian playmaker Torres has been injured. Torres has shown glimpses of the ability to excel as a media punta, but he was another player left underutilized by Nowak. The big question left for Hackworth is how best to incorporate Torres while Farfan is in good form? The answer may be to switch Farfan back out to a wide midfield role, allowing Torres to assert himself.
Nevertheless, Philadelphia continues to climb out of the deep hole dug by their early struggles. Whether they are too far gone to sneak into the MLS Cup Playoffs remains to be seen. If they find a way in, Michael Farfan is bound to play a pivotal role in their ascension up the Eastern Conference.