TUCSON, Ariz. – Ask a young American player who his footballing idols are, you get the names you usually expect: Donovan, McBride or Reyna if he goes the American route; Messi, Ronaldo, Xavi if he goes global.
But when a kid picks someone who’s a bit out of left field, it gets your attention. And Andrew Farrell got mine when he volunteered this name.
“I’m a big fan of Alex Song,” the No. 1 pick in the 2013 SuperDraft told me on Thursday here at New England Revolution preseason camp. “Even though he plays a little deep, like a defensive midfielder, he can also play center back and he can play a lot of different roles. I try to copy his play, because he can play a lot of different spots and he can play those balls [forward] and I think that’s something that I like to do.”
Without saying much, Farrell gives away a lot of the reason why fans should very, very excited about the 20-year-old former University of Louisville star. His favorite player is a defensive-minded virtual one-man soccer band who, thanks to his technical ability and tireless work ethic, makes the stars around him shine a little brighter.
That’s what Farrell brings to the table and then some. What sets him apart is what his teammates and coaches say is a maturity level that is stunning for someone of his age.
“He’s only 20 years old, but when you watch him in games, you swear he’s been in the league for years,” Revs center back A.J. Soares told MLSsoccer.com on Thursday. “Not to put any pressure on him, because we shouldn’t put any pressure on him. He needs to go out there and play the way he plays.”
And the way he plays is electric. New England head coach Jay Heaps says he hasn’t settled on a permanent position yet for Farrell, who played a little bit of everything at Louisville. In preseason, he’s lined up primarily at right back, where he’ll likely start for the Revolution. But Heaps has also given him significant time at center back, where he played most of his college minutes.
In either location, he’s been quality. His overlapping skills on the flank have been exhilarating, and his speed has allowed him to contribute when the Revs move forward. He already seems to have an innate understanding with Kelyn Rowe, who should see a good chunk of time in right midfield this season, and Andy Dorman, who might be the opening-day starter depending on how things play out.
But there was a moment on Wednesday night in New England’s 3-2 loss to Real Salt Lake in the Desert Diamond Cup that was cause for true excitement. In the 50th minute, Farrell, who shifted to center back after the half, chested down a ball at the top of the Revs’ box after an RSL turnover and carefully weighed his options.
Instead of booting the ball upfield to clear it out of danger, the rookie took a purposeful look up the left flank and fired a long lead pass to Diego Fagundez, who raced to the end line and cut a cross to the back post that Dorman finished to knot the game at 2-2.
The Revs didn’t see many goals initiated from their central defenders in 2012, and it was a moment that made you salivate thinking of the potential for a kid who has innate technical skills you don’t see often in a kid at his position.
“He does it all the time,” Heaps told MLSsoccer.com on Thursday. “He reads the game well. What’s understated is his technical ability. It’s not just that he can receive the ball and play it. He knows the passing lane and how to lead players into the right areas. He does that with a sense of maturity.”
It’s not fair to get ahead of ourselves when it comes to young players who show potential, but it’s hard not to get carried away sometimes. Especially when you see a young defender who has an instinctual ability to play the ball up into attack.
And that gets you dreaming about where Farrell could end up if he keeps improving.
“There should be no question in his mind that he should be aiming for the national team,” Heaps said.
Farrell has some way to go, though. MLS has a long history of draft picks who dazzle in preseason but fail to find a rhythm once their pro career starts in full. So the Kentucky native will have to learn how to properly pace himself once the 2013 season starts.
And, as Heaps adds, there’s plenty more to work on that isn’t on a pitch, such as the proper diet, strengthening his core, hitting the weights and adding the physical nature to his game “so that we’re building a professional player,” as he put it.
But the kid’s head is right, by all accounts. His maturity is miles ahead of his peers. He’s got the impressive technical ability. And he’s got a tactical awareness and a sense of where the flow of the game is going. From center back as well as right back. Really, anywhere.
Ask Farrell if he’s hoping to catch Jurgen Klinsmann’s eye at some point, and he just smiles and gives the usual diplomatic answers about how it’s an honor to represent your country and it should be a goal for any young player.
Then ask him if he felt like Klinsmann was calling his name a little bit the first time he talked about preferring defenders who can play the ball out of the back. Well, Farrell smiles a little bigger.
“Oh yeah,” he said. “That’s something that I like to do and maybe at some point I can show them what’s up.”
Alex Song, someone may be gunning for you.
Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com. "The Throw-In" appears every Thursday.