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The Designated Player: Andrew Farrell the MLS No. 1 Pick, Made in Peru (and Yugoslavia, and Louisville)

Andrew Farrell

“Welcome to the family. We’re happy to have you. Stay humble, but stay hungry.”

Making his way off the stage he’s just shared with MLS Commissioner Don Garber, Andrew Farrell nods earnestly at the short greeting by his new head coach, Jay Heaps, and looks down at the New England Revolution scarf now draped round his neck. At the other side of the hall, at the ESPN broadcast desk, analysts Alexi Lalas and Taylor Twellman are now praising the no. 1 pick in the 2013 SuperDraft — Lalas is noting the young man’s confidence playing the ball out of defense, while Twellman, a former no. 2 overall draft pick for the Revs, and club hero, is praising second-year coach Heaps, for exciting a beleaguered fan base by trading to secure the top player on the board.

Farrell is just relieved that the process is over. With Toronto initially holding the first pick and Farrell’s star rising at the Combine, it had been widely expected he would be headed to Canada, until New England made the draft-day move for its first-ever top pick — a bold gesture of faith in a young player who elicits stock phrases such as “significant upside” but who is, like all his peers, untested at the professional level. “I tried to stay away from all the mock drafts and blogs and all that,” says Farrell. “Until they call your name, you’re never certain. I heard one or two things from my agent that there’s been a a trade, and I’d spoken to New England and liked them. A lot of the teams I’d spoken to said nice things, but were, like, ‘We’re too low of a pick to get you’, but they (New England) didn’t really hint at anything like a trade from fourth to first.”

After the draft, the Revs hierarchy are still playing their cards close to their vests on what they had to give up for the first pick, though when I speak to Twellman later, he suggests it wasn’t much for what they got:

“I think Farrell is the one guy at the Combine that you know is MLS-ready — whether it is a right back or center back he can come in and play right away. A good athlete that is versatile will always have a spot in MLS, and rumor is they didn’t have to pay much for the spot either.”

So what’s the fuss about? The answer to that is both obvious and mildly puzzling. Farrell stood apart at the Combine as one of those physical players who can play bigger than his size — capable of barreling runs out of defense with the ball at his feet, and unafraid to distribute the ball accurately over distance. Yet there was some question over his best position (Did he have the concentration for a starting center back? Was he mobile enough to play defensive midfielder?) and a wider question about the real relative worth of a player who was a standout in what, by consensus, was a relatively weak SuperDraft class of 2013. The rise of the academies and MLS clubs’ increasing savvy over using the homegrown rule has perhaps eroded the draft pool. With that in mind, it was interesting to see Gyasi Zardes, the L.A. Galaxy homegrown claim, touting his own talents at the SuperDraft — Zardes may well have gone as no. 1, had he participated in the draft, but his presence looked a little distracting, like a WBA champion watching a WBO title fight ringside. It’s doubtful Farrell was bothered — and, in fairness, all he could do was be the best among his peers who were present, and most agree he was.

Just as he’s hard to pin down on the field, Farrell does not fit easy profiles off it — perhaps owing to the circumstances of his childhood and early exposure to the game. Adopted at a young age by religious parents, at the age of 5 he found himself moved to Peru, where his mother and father were deployed as missionaries and where he was introduced to the game (“my mom was my first coach”). By the time he came back to the U.S. at the age of 15, he had been steeped in a soccer culture that prized technical ability over physical strength, even though it became apparent that his physique was filling out powerfully for his age. While in Peru, Farrell became a fan of local soccer — following Alianza Lima, where he admired Peruvian international Jefferson Farfán, and followed his career as it progressed from Alianza to PSV Eindhoven, then Schalke. Endearingly, when I first sit down to speak with Farrell about his life story and we exchange e-mails for follow-ups, the address includes Farfán’s name. When I point it out, he giggles in embarrassment.

Farrell’s a modest presence in person. The night before the last day of the Combine, with the buzz around him already coalescing into a status as the consensus no. 1 pick, we meet at the players’ Fort Lauderdale hotel. Around us, players are milling around looking for their laundered kits, which lie in a giant bag at the center of the room. Rather than speaking up over the din, Farrell seems to lower his voice as if embarrassed at being singled out for attention. The repeated word you hear about his demeanor this week is “humility” — from the moment he came off the field after his first game at the Combine, after a 4-0 victory, Farrell impressed people with his unaffected ease and apparent willingness to learn. Listening to other young men talk that week, you’d hear some try on their embryonic version of being nightmare future interview subjects, as self-confident platitudes mixed with third-person style reflection — the sportsman’s public armor. But Farrell just smiled politely as reporters questioned his decision to go forward in the game just ended (“Yeah, I try to do too much sometimes — I’ve just got to simplify the game”). On that note, his desire to get forward from defense is a big part of his game, but it’s also a potential concern.

At one point in the opening game, Farrell’s keeper had to cover for him (“He saved my ass”) after he was dispossessed on the edge of the penalty area. For better or worse, a few minutes later, Farrell was stepping up with the ball again. Unlike some of the other players at the extended audition that is the Combine, he doesn’t linger on his mistakes, or retreat into caution — an even-temperedness he partly attributes to growing up in Peru (“It’s kind of a relaxed place — it’s where I got my kind of laid-back attitude off the field”), and partly to what has been drummed into him by his coaches. Interestingly when we talk about Farfán and what he admires about him, Farrell talks of having had the same coach who’d coached Farfán as a young man and about him hearing what a “good guy” the player was off the field:

“Before you even pick a player, you need to look at their character. Obviously, you’re going to want talented players on your team, but if you’re not going to get along with them, or you’re not going to have a good work ethic, then I’d pick a decent player who has a really good work ethic and is a great person off the field, than a better player who just has the worst character and huge ego.”

Feeling my age, I tell him about Brian Clough (“Who?”) winning consecutive European Cups behind his stated principle: “As you’re setting out for the match, look around the bus and count hearts. If you can’t count five, turn the bus around.” We agree that we’re broadly talking about the same thing.

Having returned to America as a teenager, Farrell began a steady progression through schools and youth soccer. His youth team coach at that time (and later his coach at PDL side River City Rovers), Muhamed Fazlagic, recalls him making an instant impression, though at that time he was not playing in the center of the field:

“It was obvious to us from the start. We played him on the outside right. He reminded us of Micah Richards — you’d see him take a few steps and go from box to box and he was very good at moving the ball away from pressure. I remember him playing the regional semifinal against what, at the time, was the best team, and they just couldn’t handle him on the outside.”

I put it to Fazlagic that Farrell’s exposure to Peruvian soccer culture may have predisposed him to technical coaching, but he’s quick to point to another continent:

“Our club, the majority of our coaches are coming from the former Yugoslavia, so we are very big on technical development. The first day we saw him, we knew that he was a great athlete, but we emphasized to him he had to develop his technical skills. He had fun, he was — I wouldn’t say obedient — but he was a really good player who listened every step of the way. And he wanted to improve himself regardless of what the wider community was saying about his performances.”

Farrell’s willingness to learn would lead him through the college ranks at Louisville, first as a defensive midfielder, then a right back again, and finally earmarked for Generation Adidas status as a center back. His new side, New England, is in an advanced overhaul under Jay Heaps, and the fan base has welcomed the aggressive SuperDraft move, not least for allowing them to stand down from a semi-permanent state of mutinous resentment. As Christopher Camille, of the Midnight Riders supporters group, puts it:

“One main criticism of the Revs in years past is their inability to be proactive when it comes to player acquisition. This has been a lightning rod for frustrations with the longtime fans who suffer with all that goes along with supporting a club 45 minutes outside of the city in a giant empty gridiron stadium. Those fans don’t care about attracting new fans, they just want to the Revs to appear as if they’re giving 100 percent effort to improve the team. Trading for the first pick in the 2013 SuperDraft has been received as a complete success by this part of the fan base. Andrew Farrell looks the perfect fit to bolster a subpar backline. You’d be hard-pressed to find a supporter who wouldn’t give the Revs an A+ as a draft grade.”

The pressure that that expectation might put on Farrell is offset by the fact that, for the New England fans, their team trading for the top pick was perhaps as symbolically important as the choice made with it. Any notional pressure is further diminished by the fact that “pressure” isn’t something Farrell’s inclined to put on himself. His disposition and repeat instruction from first his youth coaches, then a disciplinarian college coach, Ken Lolla, at Louisville, means he has a learned indifference to making claims on his own behalf, let alone accepting them from others. When I put any hyperbolic claims to him, he listens politely, shifts in his seat a little and moves the conversation elsewhere as quickly as he can, where another player might feel inclined to set their jaw and claim they’re ready for whatever’s coming, as if the expectation of uninvested others defined their duties. Farrell’s willingness to play the ball out and his forays forward on the field suggest he’s not short of self-belief, but it’s not the sort of vocal self-belief of Zardes (“My skill is going to blow your mind.”), just that of a young man who can take honest stock of his environment and see that he has nothing to fear, so why talk about it.

That said, Farrell is taking another step into unknown territory in moving to a professional team. Upon leaving the SuperDraft hall in Indianapolis, Farrell faces a brisk introductory day in Boston (“I have no idea where I’m going to live … whether I have to have a roommate or what …”) before joining up with his new team in Arizona the next day. Coming off the stage and making his way through the mix zone, he’s met by a team rep who firms up his travel plans and gives him the standard team introductory packet of info on realtors, cell-phone companies, car firms, cable providers, and furniture stores, to ease his transition into his new life and city. As he finishes the last conversation with press and fans and heads off to relax and play video games with a friend, the no. 1 pick could be forgiven for at least dreaming a little about the future — while behind him, other players are still fidgeting in unfamiliar suits as the draft continues, wondering if they’ll be given a future to contemplate.

Graham Parker (@kidweil) leads the U.S. and MLS soccer coverage for The Guardian. He also writes for Howler.