ST. PETERSBURG — Wherever Jordan Gafa has landed during his soccer career, Frankie Sanfilippo has been close by to lend a helping hand.
Gafa, a 22-year-old defender, was not selected in the 2013 MLS draft. Fort Lauderdale and Carolina were interested after a successful NASL combine, though nothing materialized. MLS's Columbus Crew invited Gafa to preseason camp but released him after 2½ weeks.
That was when Sanfilippo put in a good word to Rowdies coach Ricky Hill and executive vice president Perry Van Der Beck on behalf of his longtime friend. Gafa and Sanfilippo are from San Diego and have known each other most of their lives. Gafa was 5 when he was introduced to Sanfilippo, nine years his senior. Their families have remained close.
"It was his first professional year, and at that time you're struggling to find a team, you get released here, you get released there," Sanfilippo said. "It's good to help out someone that you know and someone you know has talent and can do something on the field."
When Gafa entered San Diego Cathedral Catholic High School, Sanfilippo, who was an assistant coach for the Dons soccer team during the offseasons of his professional career, convinced coach Bryan Wood to move the youngster to the varsity. In his senior season, Gafa was named San Diego County and California Interscholastic Federation Player of the Year.
"He was our star player," Sanfilippo said.
Gafa then played at the University of North Carolina and, as a right back, helped the Tar Heels win a NCAA championship in 2011. When Gafa arrived in Chapel Hill, Sanfilippo was nearby in Cary playing for the Carolina RailHawks.
"I had him there to help me get settled," Gafa said. "He'd come to my games, and I'd go watch him play for the RailHawks."
Gafa was signed by the Rowdies three weeks into his preseason trial with the team.
"Frankie's known of him for a while and suggested that he's a quality person and a good player," Hill said. "Frankie's been with the squad for three years, and he knows what we have in terms of the makeup of the squad. Since Jordan's come, he's been a credit and he's fit in very, very smoothly. And he's a quality footballer."
In Saturday's victory at Fort Lauderdale, Gafa made his pro debut in the 12th minute after starting central defender Jay Needham went down with a pulled groin. He was matched up on the right side with the Strikers' Jemal Johnson, who briefly played in England's Premier League with Blackburn. Gafa acquitted himself well, according to Hill.
"Jordan contained (Johnson) very, very well and was calm in what he did, wasn't rash, he was good positionally and his use of the ball was thoughtful," Hill said. "It was a very pleasing debut."
The Rowdies defense has been hit by injuries in recent weeks. Needham is out for tonight's match against Edmonton and likely won't be ready for the Rowdies' next game, May 18 at Minnesota. Fellow central defender Takuya Yamada also injured his groin late in practice April 25 and missed the victory over the Strikers. Yamada is doubtful tonight.
All of which means Rowdies fans can expect to see more of Gafa in the coming weeks. He is slated to play right back, where he is most comfortable. It's also the spot where Sanfilippo has been a mainstay during his three seasons in Tampa Bay (Sanfilippo will slide over to center in place of Needham).
"It's nice to have Frankie there next to me," Gafa said. "We're like brothers."