The Sporting Kansas City playmaker has enjoyed a standout playoffs after struggling to lock down a starting spot throughout 2013.Put a ball at Benny Feilhaber's feet and he'll scope the field with an inspired eye. Not many in American soccer spot the final pass better, and fewer can hit it. But the midfield maestro doesn't need that vision to see he's had some trouble meeting expectations.
After moving to English Premier League side Derby County in 2007, Feilhaber found minutes hard to come by. He readily acknowledges underwhelming with the New England Revolution in 2012. Then there was this past season with Sporting Kansas City, when the 28-year-old found a spot in the lineup difficult to lock down.
Although Feilhaber did start 22 of 34 matches, he went the full 90 on just three occasions. He lost his place altogether for a stretch during the summer, then again at regular season's end.
"There's no doubt about it that it's frustrating," Feilhaber told Goal. "I'm sure every player will say that they deserve more time than they're getting if they're not starting and playing every minute. So it's definitely not an easy place to be."
That's where Feilhaber found himself as the postseason kicked off, sitting out Kansas City's playoff opener at New England. But he got his chance in the second leg of the conference semifinal and capitalized, using a dynamic run to tee up Claudio Bieler's extra-time strike.
And he came up big again Saturday as Sporting claimed the Eastern Conference title with a 2-1 win over the Houston Dynamo, playing a key role in C.J. Sapong's equalizer before setting up Dominic Dwyer's winner with a lovely chip.
"For myself obviously and for our team," Feilhaber said, "it's important for us to be peaking at the right time."
Kansas City coach Peter Vermes figured yielding Feilhaber's best would require patience. With Sporting's high-pressure 4-3-3 system comes a "different demand" — no better or worse than other MLS philosophies, Vermes said, but certainly distinctive.
"A lot of energy gets expended by those players, especially in the middle of the park, and I think that's something he needed to adjust to," Vermes said. "He's had times where he's progressed, then when maybe he's regressed a little bit, and then he went forward again — like a 'two steps forward, one step back' kind of deal."
For a U.S. national team veteran who struck the winner in the 2007 Gold Cup final, started the 2009 Confederations Cup final and played three games at the 2010 World Cup, enduring a limited role was taxing.
Yet he never felt the need to sit down with Vermes about his playing time. As Feilhaber put it, "There's not too much you can do other than continue to work hard, train well and wait for your opportunity."
"To be honest, there wasn't too much interaction," Feilhaber added. "You know, I'm 28 years old, so I've been playing professional soccer for almost 10 years now and I kind of know just from the training and the games where I sit."
In Feilhaber's opinion, it's no coincidence his uptick in form corresponded with the return of midfielder Paulo Nagamura from a long-term ankle injury. The Brazilian in the playoffs has provided an intelligent box-to-box presence, offering defensive cover as Feilhaber roams forward and making runs when the playmaker lurks in deeper positions.
With Feilhaber embracing that creative freedom, the club in its third consecutive postseason appearance finally found the formula for unlocking the disciplined Dynamo, who ousted Sporting each of the past two years.
"For him, it's been a specific thing that he has that can help us," Vermes said. "With the amount of possession we've had in games, sometimes when teams are backed up it's a little hard to break that down. I believe that he has the ability to not only score from the midfield position but, more importantly, give the final pass. He can open up a game and he can thread the needle."
With Feilhaber doing just that, hopes for a third straight invitation to the USA's January camp linger in the back of his mind. The owner of 40 caps, he has just two since Jurgen Klinsmann took over in 2011, though he did chat with the coach when the Americans played a World Cup qualifier at Sporting Park last month.
"He still knows who I am," Feilhaber said with a chuckle. "I'm sure he's got his head on a swivel, so to speak. Since there's six months left till the World Cup, I'm sure he's watching tons of players everywhere. If I'm one of them, he knows where I am and how I'm doing."
Klinsmann no doubt will be watching next weekend when Kansas City hosts Real Salt Lake in the MLS Cup at Sporting Park. As far as Feilhaber is concerned, the two-week break between the conference final second leg and the league title game is giving him a bit too much time to think. The faster the coming days pass, the better. Feilhaber just wants Dec. 7 to arrive.
He's already displayed enough patience for one season.
"It's gratifying to be able to play well in this moment and help the team get to where we are, but there's still one more step to make," Feilhaber said. "So I'm going to do all I can to ensure that we get the job done."
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