KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Benny Feilhaber thrives when he discerns his role and finds his comfort level with it. It showed with the U.S. national team under Bob Bradley. It showed during his time in Denmark with Aarhus. And it shows now with Sporting Kansas City after a bumpy first season with the club.
Feilhaber said he spent the first half of the campaign trying to adjust to his surroundings and figure out how and where he fit into Peter Vermes’ plans. He allotted some time to make the transition from the more direct approach in New England during the second half of last season to the high-pressure, midfield-intensive system preferred in his new home. He did not bear the burden he carried with the Revs as a highly-touted, ill-fitting acquisition to strengthen the midfield, but he also did not possess the familiarity required to function consistently within his new surroundings, either.
“I definitely didn’t feel at ease at any time,” Feilhaber said before Sporting went through its paces on a frigid Thursday morning. “It was a lot about being as mentally prepared as I could because I didn’t fully get the system. It wasn’t second hand or second nature. There was a lot of thinking during games. I think it was noticeable. It was also something I expected, to take a little bit of time to get used to the system and get used to all of the players around here.”
It took until August for Feilhaber to entrench himself in the side again after rather intermittent usage during the middle third of the season. He started nine consecutive games before making way for the three of the final four fixtures and the first playoff game at New England. He returned to the lineup after Lawrence Olum picked up an injury and prompted Vermes to turn to Feilhaber for a more ambitious approach in central midfield to overturn the first-leg deficit.
The shift from a more conservative midfield three to a more balanced shape – Uri Rosell as the deep-lying conduit, Paulo Nagamura as the industrious, box-to-box plugger and Feilhaber as the technically gifted link with the front three – aligns with Feilhaber’s strengths and permits him to function as a valuable complementary piece. He isn’t expected the carry the load, with creative fulcrum Graham Zusi roving throughout the attacking half from his nominal berth on the right and the influential Nagamura around to reinforce the structure. He locates spaces and mines them efficiently without disrupting the cadence of his teammates. Every so often, he even tracks back into his own end to make a critical tackle or stick with a midfield runner.
“We’ve gone back to the middle ground,” Feilhaber said. “I’ve found my feet a little bit more. Now that I understand the system, it makes all the difference.”
Feilhaber’s contributions during the Eastern Conference championship against Houston – including two match-winning assists and one lung-busting run to snuff out a Dynamo counter – underscore his value. He embraces and understands the demands placed upon him. Now he just needs to meet them once again in order to help his side defeat Real Salt Lake and win MLS Cup on Saturday.
“I’ve settled in,” Feilhaber said. “Peter has given me a few more opportunities. I just have to do as well as I can with the opportunity. Going into the final, it’s the same thing.”
(Images courtesy: US Presswire)