The U.S. international midfielder struggled in New England, but he might enjoy more success in MLS with a change of scenery.Yet another in a long list of quirky personnel distributions brought Benny Feilhaber to New England 20 months ago. The shotgun marriage – an unintended combination of two parties ill suited to each other – didn't work.
New England couldn't afford to pass on a player of Feilhaber's caliber when he staggeringly slid down the allocation order last April, but his skills weren't a great fit for the direct approach employed upon his arrival and during the second half of this season.
Revolution coaches Steve Nicol and Jay Heaps struggled to devise ways to use him effectively as the primary option and tired quickly of his antics. Feilhaber failed to produce any semblance of consistent form despite his ample natural skill and raised questions about whether he would buckle down during difficult periods.
It was, by and large, a frustrating spell for everyone involved.
“It had a lot of ups and downs,” Feilhaber said during a conference call on Tuesday. “It wasn't easy not winning as many games as we would have liked, as I would have liked. Losing is always a tough thing. I'm an extremely competitive person. Losing doesn't necessarily bring out the best in anybody, but I struggled with it. I didn't have a great season this year – points-wise, I probably had a better season the year before even though our team wasn't as good. But you take from it what you can, try to learn from it and try to prove [yourself] as a player and a person.”
That chance to learn from his mistakes needed to come somewhere else. New England declined Feilhaber's contractual option for 2013 in November – he made $446,000 in guaranteed compensation in 2012, per MLS Players Union documents, and would have carried a higher figure on the salary budget next season – and shopped Feilhaber around the league in search of a taker.
“We have had some conversations on and off with Kansas City over the past few months, as well as a couple of other teams that had expressed some interest,” Revolution general manager Michael Burns said in a phone interview on Tuesday. “Kansas City expressed the most interest in acquiring him in a trade. We just felt, moving forward, that this was the best move for Benny and the best move for us. That's really what it came down to.”
Sporting Kansas City manager Peter Vermes leaned on his experience with Feilhaber as an assistant with the U.S. U-20 side in 2005 and his glaring need for creative reinforcements to justify a dramatic move to reinforce his squad. He sent an undisclosed chunk of the allocation money earned by qualifying for the CONCACAF Champions League and a couple of draft picks (a 2014 first-rounder and a 2015 second-rounder) to New England and struck a new deal with Feilhaber to secure his services for next season.
The exchange represented good value for the Revolution in this set of circumstances. Feilhaber wasn't returning to Foxborough anyways with Kalifa Cissé and Andy Dorman on board for next season, and the money and the picks provided a better-than-expected haul in return for his rights. It isn't a one-sided deal, certainly. While the assets may help a Revolution side still in need of additional reinforcements, the player benefits a Sporting side keenly focused on the present.
Feilhaber can slot into several spots in Vermes' 4-3-3 setup (ideally on the left wing or as the highest placed of the three central midfielders) and will buy into a tactical setup constructed upon moving the ball briskly in possession. He isn't a direct replacement for Wigan-bound Roger Espinoza (the Honduran offers more bite and more effective defensive coverage, though Feilhaber picks a pass more accurately and scurries around a bit to occupy space) or the departed Júlio César, but he increases the diversity of the available midfield options and tilts the balance toward a more positive approach in that department.
“From the point of view of the way we play and who we are as a team, I think Benny fits in very, very well with that,” Vermes said during a conference call. “Not only do I think he'll fit in well, I think he'll help to enhance some of the things that we need on the field. From that perspective as well, it's going to be very positive to our team and our organization.”
Most importantly, Feilhaber won't feel the need to carry the team on his shoulders. He may carry the price tag of a star, but he doesn't fit into that role as neatly as his skill set might suggest. As Feilhaber showed during his time with the U.S. national team under Bob Bradley, he operates best as a complementary player: one of those figures who combines well with other talented teammates and exploits the spaces they create to make his impact on matches. He didn't thrive as the focal point in New England, but he comes into a team with an established core that should give him the platform and the support required to rebound from a disappointing 2012 campaign.
Feilhaber enters this new arrangement on more solid footing than he did when he joined the Revs last year. He knows the coach. He joins a team expected to win frequently. He thinks the style of play suits him. He understands the more manageable demands at his feet. Now it is up to him to ensure his second partnership – one agreed upon by both parties, not thrown together by chance – will prove far more profitable than the first.