Marco Farfan caught wind of the whispers. Roaming the halls of Centennial High School, the senior could tell some students were muttering his name just out of earshot. Others, in disregard for subtlety, simply stared at him.
Such is life for the youngest member of the Portland Timbers.
On an average day, the 18-year-old begins with an hour-plus commute from his hometown of Gresham to the Timbers' training facility in Beaverton. He spends the morning on the field battling with veterans of the World Cup, English Premier League and Argentine Primera Division. By the time the afternoon rolls around, Farfan is back in Gresham — planted at a desk for English class.
"When I'm in class, I just focus on school and forget about soccer," Farfan told Goal . "When I'm in soccer, I just forget about school and do my thing."
That approach has served Farfan well. After signing as a homegrown player in October, the 5-foot-9 defender has started four of eight matches to kick off 2017. A tenacious tackler with technical ability once honed as a winger, Farfan looks the part at left back.
"He's still walking down the halls in high school," Timbers coach Caleb Porter said. "If you don't have a level head, then he'd probably be struggling with some of those dynamics. But he's just got a really calm demeanor, he's got a quiet intensity about him, he's extremely hungry and he's not in awe."
Portland wasn't even an MLS town when Farfan's path to the Timbers took root. Raised in a soccer-mad household, he saw an example to aspire to in his older brother, Roberto. As Roberto made the cut for Oregon State and the Timbers U-23s, Marco came to understand — and relish — the commitment required to play at a high level.
"By the time I was 10 years old," he said, "I really wanted to become a professional soccer player."
Farfan was 14 when he joined the Timbers academy in 2013, two years after the club entered MLS. Last season, he made the jump to T2 — the club's USL reserve team — and earned 18 starts. Having become the first player to sign with the Timbers directly from the academy, Farfan entered preseason this winter with tempered expectations.
"It's a lot faster physically and technically," Farfan said of the MLS level. "You really have to be on top of the little things, like your first touch. At first it was a hard transition, going in from T2 to preseason with the first team, but after a couple first-team trainings I felt like I started getting those things down."
Porter understands Farfan is still learning the nuances of playing left back — when to step up, when to drop, when to slide. In the coach's words, "He's going to play, and he's going to make some mistakes."
But Porter sees the upside. It's why he handed Farfan 60 minutes in a February tune-up against the New York Red Bulls, and a full 90 in the preseason finale versus the LA Galaxy. What he saw was a polished prospect with confidence that belied his age.
"He's extremely athletic — I would say deceptively athletic," Porter said. "He's stronger than his age, he's got pace and he's going to continue to grow in that regard. ... He's also technical, and that's important to an outside back in our system. We want these guys to get forward and join the attack and provide width and help us keep the ball."
Farfan was happy enough to win the backup job at left back behind Lithuania international Vytas, who impressed as a midseason acquisition last year. When Vytas suffered a calf strain in the season opener, Porter didn't hesitate to thrust Farfan into the lineup for a Week 2 trip to face the Galaxy.
Making his MLS debut, the rookie found himself tasked with marking U.S. international Sebastian Lletget and, later, big-money winger Romain Alessandrini. But he wasn't overwhelmed by the occasion as the Timbers notched a 1-0 win on the road.
"I thought I was going to be training with the first team and then get minutes with T2, like I did last year," Farfan said. "I never expected to make my debut the second game into the season."
For now, spot duty will remain Farfan's forte. With Vytas' return to health came a spot on the bench for Farfan in last week's win over the Vancouver Whitecaps. In search of more consistent minutes, he will rejoin T2 for Friday's match against San Antonio FC.
"We can't keep sitting him on the bench and not play him," Porter said. "We'll make sure he's always getting games. Some of those games will be with us, some of those games will be with T2, and eventually he'll take over the starting job."
That's the long game, at least. And Farfan doesn't mind looking down the road. Once he graduates from high school June 9, Farfan already has plans to pursue a marketing degree through the league's partnership with Southern New Hampshire University and eventually enroll at a college in Oregon.
In the short term, Farfan is holding out hope of representing the U.S. at next month's U-20 World Cup in South Korea. Although he has not yet played for the U.S. at that level, he did earn a call-up to the U-19s in February.
It's another ambitious goal for the kid who dreamed of becoming a professional soccer player for the better part of a decade. Now, that box is checked off — but Farfan knows he's only getting started.
"I feel like this is an opportunity for me to get better, and show the Timbers what I can do," Farfan said. "Honestly, to me right now, I don't think I've made it yet."