MLS a family affair for Philly's inseparable Farfan duo
CHESTER, Pa. — When her twin boys returned home from their first day of kindergarten, Kathy Ollier asked them both if anything exciting happened. The first said he had a new girlfriend and told his mom what her name was. A few minutes later, the other said he also had a new girlfriend.
It was the same girl.
Since then, Gabriel and Michael Farfan have grown up, as all precocious young boys do. But their desire to follow in each other’s footsteps has never changed.
From sharing the same kindergarten girlfriend to sharing the same professional dreams, the brothers from San Diego have marched in lockstep for just about their entire lives, an ambitious journey that took them from one side of the country to the other and back again, all in the pursuit of playing soccer at the highest level.
Their journey is still far from over, but a few months ago the 22-year-old identical twins reached a pinnacle. As rookies for the Philadelphia Union, they became only the second set of twins to play in Major League Soccer and the first to play as teammates. (There have been 16 sets of brothers, 10 of which have been on the same team.)
Then the dream became even more surreal: On a rainy evening in Portland on May 6, both brothers made their first MLS starts in the same game.
“Ever since they were babies, they’ve done everything together,” says their mother, Kathy. “It’s amazing, it really is.”
While some siblings tend to drift apart, it’s always been soccer that’s kept the Farfan brothers together.
As kids, they played one-on-one on the backyard goal their father, Luis, built for them. There were only two forces that could stop a game: dinnertime or a fight.
As time went by, the games they played in got bigger. Together, they were stars at Castle Park (Calif.) High School, national champs with an elite club team called the La Jolla Nomads, and members of the United States U-17 national team as residents at the IMG Soccer Academy in Bradenton, Fla. From there, they both enrolled at Cal State Fullerton in 2006, becoming two of the program’s biggest recruits.
When they weren’t growing as soccer players, they were growing closer off the field. They shared the same schedule, friends and values. They lived together in residency and in college. They listened to the same types of music and ate the same types of food. They even performed skits together where they’d do imitations of their teammates.
“I would say we’re pretty inseparable,” Michael says. “We always did the exact same thing, so it was tough to get away from each other.”
Only once did they go their separate ways. It could have meant the end of their concurrent paths to professional soccer. Instead, it only helped them both get there.
When Union coach John Hackworth heard the Farfan brothers were going to Cal State Fullerton, he remembers being blown away.
Hackworth, then a coach with the U-17 team, watched both of them blossom in residency and play instrumental roles at the 2005 U-17 World Cup in Peru. There was nothing wrong with Fullerton but, in his opinion, they could have taken their talents to a bigger program.
“I can’t imagine them not having a choice of where they wanted to go,” Hackworth said.
At the time, the Farfans said they didn’t know much about college recruiting — just that they wanted to return to the West Coast. And because they were graduating a year early, many coaches didn’t know much about them, either.
They maintain they weren’t necessarily a packaged deal, but because there weren’t many options, the brothers decided that Fullerton would be the best choice for both of them.
“I’m sure it would have been better competition [if we went elsewhere],” Gabriel said. “At the time, we had no idea about the whole college scene. We didn’t know too much about college programs.”
The Farfans enjoyed their time at Fullerton, sharing an apartment together and seeing more of their family. But after losing seasons in both 2006 and 2007, both brothers got antsy. And, for the first time, they decided to split.
Gabriel left to pursue a professional opportunity in Mexico with Primera División giants Club América, while Michael transferred to the University of North Carolina.
“I think that was a great decision,” says Hackworth. “Michael thought he could play at a higher level collegiately and Gabe thought he was ready to go. … Both took different paths, but now they’re on the exact same path they started on.”
Gabriel trained with Club América for about two years, and although he never got to debut with the first team, he still relished the chance to absorb the soccer atmosphere with an elite club while getting more in touch with his Mexican-American heritage.
Michael, meanwhile, made more of a name for himself in the ACC, earning First Team All-America honors from the National Soccer Coaches Association of America in both 2009 and 2010 and boosting his draft stock immeasurably.
“It’s great to see that there wasn’t a right direction and wrong direction,” Michael says. “It led us both to a professional soccer team — and the same team, too.”
REUNITED IN PHILLY
Given their history of playing together, it might have seemed like a foregone conclusion that the Farfan brothers would debut for the same MLS side.
But in reality, their reunion was equal parts coincidence, timing and fate.
The wheels were first set in motion when Hackworth went to scout the 2010 College Cup Final Four in Santa Barbara, Calif., where Michael’s Tar Heels were playing. There, the Union coach ran into Gabriel, and the two talked about Gabriel’s interest in MLS. Gabriel liked the idea, and once he figured out his contract situation in Mexico, he agreed to come to Union camp as a preseason trialist.
That all happened a few weeks before the January SuperDraft, where Michael was projected as a possible first-round pick. He had no idea if he’d be able to join his brother in Philly.
“The draft is hectic and I didn’t know where I’d end up,” Michael says. “Even when teams talk to you, there are still trades involved and other factors you have to consider. You never know, so I went into the draft with an open mind. I didn’t think about Philadelphia.”
But Philadelphia thought about him, and with the fifth pick of Round 2 (the 23rd selection overall), the Union swooped up the star midfielder from UNC. While slightly surprised that he dropped out of the first round — which could have been due to what he called a poor performance at the combine — he felt fortunate that Philly was the landing spot, even though both he and his brother had never before been to the City of Brotherly Love.
Later that day, when he returned to his hotel, Michael called his family, the excitement brewing over the possibilities that lay ahead.
“I was set on coming on trial before he was drafted,” Gabriel says. “That obviously gave me more incentive on coming.”
While Michael was already signed by MLS before arriving in camp, it took Gabriel the entire preseason to come to terms with the Union. He was officially signed a day before the season began, and quickly made his presence felt, coming on as a late sub in the club’s first two matches.
A toe injury sidelined Gabriel for most of April, but he returned to action in Portland on May 6, joining Michael on the starting back line for a nationally televised game against the Timbers. Both were called to duty because Danny Califf (illness), Jordan Harvey (red card suspension) and Stefani Miglioranzi (groin) were all sidelined, and the brothers performed admirably in difficult circumstances.
The Farfans are very similar in the sense that both are being used at fullback in Philly even though they have past experience in the midfield. And both are creative, technical players with a strong awareness of what’s going around them on the pitch.
But even though it looks like the rookie brothers mirror each other in every way, it’s important to realize there are some differences between them.
“Michael is a little more reserved than Gabe in the way he plays,” Hackworth explains. “Gabe is a little more expressive. He has a little more flair and creativity. But at the same time, Michael does it in a more mild-mannered way. When I had him, Gabe would have an unbelievable move and meg somebody and pull of some kind of crazy trick — and have a smile on his face about it. Then, Michael would pull something off and you wouldn’t even know it because his expression wouldn’t change at all.”
Hackworth, who said the Farfans are like sons to him, added that the two also display similar traits off the field; Gabe, for example, is a little more outspoken than Michael.
But their mother claims how they each act sometimes feels like an act.
“They actually switch off [personalities] and they’ve done that since they were little,” Kathy says. “One day, one might be quiet and the other is joking. And the next day, it’s the opposite.”
That, of course, only makes it even harder for people to tell them apart — like the college librarian who kicked Michael out of study hall because he was on MySpace and then wouldn’t let Gabriel in later that evening.
But then, that’s the point. Why should they try to be different when they want the same things?
They are identical twins, bound by one identical dream.
“Everything,” says Gabriel, “has worked out perfectly.”
Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DaveZeitlin.