Andrew Farrell, the first overall selection in the 2013 MLS Draft, has started 41 of 44 MLS matches since turning pro . (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
The visitors locker room inside RFK Stadium was quiet. A few months removed from their first MLS Cup playoff berth in four years, New England Revolution players entered the 2014 season with high expectations. But a 2-0 loss to 2013 bottom-feeder D.C. United dropped the Revs to 1-3-1 . They were shut out in four of those first five games.
Defeat is never welcome, but it can be instructive. Character and confidence, or lack thereof, may be revealed. And it was in the back corner of the locker room on that April evening in the capital, where Revs captain José Gonçalves and second-year defender Andrew Farrell conducted a short, impromptu training session.
Gonçalves, the league's 2013 defender of the year, had set contract issues aside and started the new season at the heart of the New England back four. That night against United, he scored an own goal that proved to be the game-winner. He had every reason to sulk or withdraw while Farrell, 22, might have been excused if he didn’t feel like taking further instruction following a 90-minute effort that featured a cleating from D.C.'s Lewis Neal.
Yet there they both were, surrounded by relative silence – a veteran giving a youngster insight into the positioning and footwork necessary when a pass was played behind an outside back. While Farrell soaked it in, New England coach Jay Heaps watched from across the room.
"That’s a testament to both guys," said Heaps. "Those moments are important. And they’re organic."
Heaps always expected Gonçalves, who played in Switzerland, Scotland and Germany, to be a leader. But the manager has been especially impressed with Farrell, who’s justified his first-overall selection in the 2013 MLS draft and then some. The Louisville, Ky. native has started 41 of 44 MLS matches since turning pro and along with Amobi Okugo, DeAndre Yedlin and Matt Hedges, he's emerged as a defender set to stake his international claim during the next World Cup cycle.
A center back at Louisville, Farrell played on the right last year and then again at the start of this season. Heaps called the speed at which Farrell adapted to the position "amazing." An injury to Gonçalves three weeks ago then forced Heaps to slide Farrell inside, where his responsibilities are far different but where he’s been outstanding next to A.J. Soares. New England (3-3-2) has yielded one goal in its past three games and shut out MLS champ Sporting Kansas City, 2-0, last weekend. With Farrell in the lineup (he missed the 4-0 season-opening loss to the Houston Dynamo), the Revs have the best goals-against average in MLS.
The key to Farrell’s rise, and to his future, is uncommon versatility, character and background. Sporting coach Peter Vermes noticed it last Saturday.
"He is a very athletic defender and for such a young guy is extremely confident going forward," Vermes said. "He is also a very competitive player and with those qualities, at such a young age, I think he will have a long career in MLS."
That confidence was forged in Peru, where Farrell's parents spent a decade as Presbyterian missionaries. Farrell was five years old when he moved with his family, including a brother and sister, to an apartment in Lima.
"Louisville is growing in soccer now, but there's no chance I would've played soccer unless I went to Peru. That’s where the passion came from," Farrell said. "I played every day. Every hour I could, at school during recess. That’s where I learned to love it … If you were playing better than the kids your own age, they’d move you up. Then I was playing kids a little older and a little bigger, more experienced, and I loved that challenge. That’s what makes the sport so much fun to me, to go against guys who are better."
At 15, Farrell returned to Kentucky -- a somewhat foreign culture at that point -- and found solace in soccer.
"I was an awkward teenager and in high school, soccer was the only reason I had friends," he said. "That’s how I connected with people."
He wasn't highly recruited and stayed local, signing with the Louisville Cardinals and coach Ken Lolla. By the end of his junior season, Farrell had blossomed into an imposing, athletic, 5-11 defender with a midfielder's touch on the ball. The Revolution traded up to draft him.
"When he has the ball at his feet, he’s willing to do things in the back that defenders like me never did," Heaps said. "He’s so strong, good in the air, but for me the thing that makes Andrew as good as he is, his feet are so quick. I've never seen it before on a player his size. He’ll dribble. He can get himself out of a tough situation by passing out of the back. That’s just his nature. ‘I can do this. I can get by this guy, make a move here, get by one player and open it up for a [teammate]."
That combination was even more intriguing when coupled with Farrell’s personality, Heaps said.
"When we interviewed him, he was rooting for his teammates at the combine and he spoke graciously about everyone. Sometimes you get in those settings, they’re thinking the conversation needs to be about them," Heaps continued. "I’d seen him play and he looks like he plays cocky. When you meet him, he’s so humble the other way. He was so well-raised by his family and they’re so down to earth, that you’re blown away by how he carries himself. He plays with swagger, but that’s not how he is off the field. It’s refreshing."
Said Farrell, "I think one of my strengths is what coaches ask you about at the [pre-draft] combine – coachability. I’ve always been open to new ideas. I played center back. I played right back. I’ve even played goalie. I’ll do whatever fits for the team. I think that makes you a better player. You learn every day from somebody. It doesn’t even have to be about soccer. Opening yourself to other opinions is just huge."
Over the past couple years, the Revolution have been all about the learning curve. Heaps spent 11 seasons in MLS as a player, including nine in Foxborough, but had no coaching experience when he was hired to manage his former club in late 2011. The Revolution finished with the league's fourth-worst record the following season. But Heaps and GM Mike Burns continued to revamp the roster and made significant headway with some talented young players. Thanks in part to the likes of Diego Fagundez, Kelyn Rowe, Scott Caldwell and Juan Agudelo (since departed), New England developed an identity, became fun to watch for the first time in a while and then gave Sporting all it could handle in the 2013 playoffs.
Heaps wanted skill, but said he cared just as much -- or more, at first -- about finding players "who could fight, who could learn, who would help us be team that’s hard to beat." His squad would gel over time, but a collective overhaul in attitude needed to happen first.
Some of that occurs in training, but it also happens outside the manager’s purview, whether it's in the corner of a losing locker room or around the ping-pong table in Farrell’s Dedham apartment. It's a popular gathering spot for some of the Revs’ younger players – Farrell said Caldwell is the toughest out – and represents just one way in which a long-term core is taking shape.
"What’s happening now that I’m in the middle with A.J. at center back, we get along so well off the field that the transition for me has been seamless. We talk all the time. Our lockers are next to each other. We hang out. A relationship off the field can translate on the field. That’s why sometimes great players don’t play as well together as they might with lesser players they get along with," Farrell said. "Playing here for three, four, five years with the same guys is going to be huge. We’ll know what we’re going to do on the field together and that translates into winning games."
He’ll likely move back to the right flank and get more involved in supporting the attack when Gonçalves (quadriceps) returns to the lineup. That won't happen before Saturday afternoon’s match in Toronto, where Farrell, Soares and their teammates will get their first look at superstars Jermaine Defoe and Michael Bradley. But Farrell will remain a constant in Heaps’ back line and, perhaps someday down the road, Jurgen Klinsmann’s.
"I think he and Kelyn Rowe have to be in that [next World Cup] cycle – 100 percent," Heaps said. "I don’t think there’s anything that can stop them from being there."
Meanwhile, there are MLS games to play and still plenty to learn (not to mention a beard to shave when he finally scores his first MLS goal). Farrell said he relishes being part of the Revolution’s climb. There’s a potential downside to being the No. 1 pick – the team that drafted you probably isn’t very good. But Farrell, who embraced the challenges in Peru and then back home in Kentucky, said he’s inspired by the opportunity in New England.
"I wanted to be part of creating something that’s going to be great. I want to be thought of as part of a core we have here that’s pushing to be that next team like Kansas City, a tough team that’s been together,” he said. “I wanted to be a major contributor, and so far we’ve been doing well."