Dom Dwyer and Benny Feilhaber have both struggled for playing time at varying points this year, but both have become key figures in Sporting KC's march to the MLS Cup FinalKANSAS CITY, Kansas -- Sporting Kansas City finally exorcised its demons, beating the Houston team that had had eliminated KC in each of the previous two playoffs. A major factor in Saturday night’s triumph was the play of two players who have faced the frustration of being on the bench this season.
Benny Feilhaber and Dom Dwyer were keys to Sporting KC’s 2-1 victory, combining on the beautiful game-winning goal by Dwyer to book the team’s place in the 2013 MLS Cup Final. Feilhaber’s perfectly-weighted chip and Dwyer’s jaw-dropping touch, turn and finish was arguably the best goal of the playoffs.
“I said to (Feilhaber) that that was why we brought him here,” Sporting KC head coach Peter Vermes said. “His ability to open up a defense is exactly what we were looking for. It was a great ball and at the same time it was very intuitive for Dom to be able to read the situation and have the calmness to just slip it in. It was a big-time final pass, but at the same time the finish was excellent.”
That play was the marquee moment on a night when both players contributed much more. From Dwyer’s tireless work at forward, putting pressure on Houston defenders and posing a regular threat, to Feilhaber’s creative playmaking, deft passing and the vision that once made him a U.S. national team regular, the dynamic duo were on their game from the start, and helped Sporting KC overcome a third-minute 1-0 deficit.
“Benny was on it today, it makes you really want to make that run when he’s playing that way,” Dwyer told Goal USA. “There’s been times that I’ve been frustrated, yelling at the midfield to get me the ball, but you could just see (Benny) was on it today. He was flying around, and that’s the Benny everyone knows and expects.”
Feilhaber has been a driving force in KC’s run to the MLS Cup final, providing a perfect midfield complement to Graham Zusi, which had helped give the Sporting attack a two-pronged threat in midfield that has been tough to stop.
“The past three games I think Benny has been just absolutely huge for us in the middle,” Zusi told Goal. “His confidence on the ball. His ability to keep it and put people in, has been fantastic for us. It was quite apparent nothing changed tonight. He was locked in from the beginning and he made a lot of things happen.”
Feilhaber’s impressive playoff run comes on the heels of a stretch at the end of the regular season that saw him play in just one of the team’s final four matches (and only 45 minutes in that match).
“One hundred percent it was frustrating. For me, at this point in my career I want to be playing every single game. For whatever reason we changed our tactics at the end of the year. Things change throughout the year, and at that point I knew I wasn’t in the lineup, but all you can do is keep your head up and keep training as hard as you can.
“I’ll tell you one thing, if you’re not training as hard as you can, even if you’re frustrated, Peter’s going to let you know. You don’t want to get on his bad side.”
“Once I got my chance thankfully I was able to do something with it.”
Feilhaber pointed to the playoff series against New England, the same team that traded him away last winter after just one season, as a major turning point for him. Not only because it let him earn a measure of revenge, but also helped him recapture his impact-player form, as evidenced by his series-winning assist in the second game of that series.
“You leave one team and then you’re playing them in the playoffs. Being able to beat New England in the playoffs was big for me because losing to them would have been doubly depressing,” Feilhaber admitted. “Being able to get the eventual game-winning assist was big for me, and it did feel like a weight being lifted.”
Dwyer could certainly relate to Feilhaber. After a rookie season that saw him used sparingly, Dwyer came into 2013 hoping for more playing time, but that time didn’t come. What came instead was a loan to USL PRO side Orlando City, a third-tier team where Dwyer would be able to earn regular starts. Dwyer made the most of that chance, scoring goals in bunches and helping Orlando City to first place in its league.
Upon his return from that loan, Dwyer saw some minutes, but still couldn’t break through the Sporting KC starting lineup.
“Orlando helped obviously, playing regularly made me relaxed because last year I couldn’t remember the last time I would play minutes,” Dwyer told Goal. “Coming back here was frustrating at first because obviously I wanted to be playing and thought I should be playing, but we had DPs banging in goals, and the top scorer on the team, so it was hard to complain.
“Peter (Vermes) has been a man of his word. He said I was coming back from Orlando to play and I’ve played in every game I’ve been available for since.”
Dwyer eventually earned a regular starting role, stepping into the lineup after Claudio Bieler fell out of favor. He also returned to Orlando City to help the Lions win the USL PRO Final, which Dwyer scored four goals in to earn MVP honors.
The experience in Orlando helped remind Dwyer of the feeling of scoring goals, which is something he hadn’t done since leaving South Florida as an underclassman and signing a Generation adidas contract in 2012.
That experience has helped Dwyer step in and be a valuable option, but also a more confident one. He showed that improved confidence on Saturday night, with a beautiful goal
“The goal he scored tonight was first class,” said Zusi. “It was an unbelievable goal and it showed how much he has grown as a player in the past year. It’s such a quick ascent. Not to knock the guy but when he was younger he would get real excited to be around the goal and sometimes he’d make the wrong decision, but today the composure to cut that back, knowing the defender was going to slide in, that was special.”
“When I was younger my big problem was I’d miss a chance and then be with my head down for the entire game,” Dwyer explained. “Now I’ve learned to just brush it off and just forget about it and get back to the game.
“If you fear missing, then you’re gonna miss. If you don’t fear it, there’s a good chance you may score.”
Dwyer did score on Saturday, helping Sporting KC reach the club’s first MLS Cup Final since 2004. He and Feilhaber have become integral parts in Sporting’s run to the final, and they share that connection of having endured similar struggles this year.
“We had a few chats on the bench, we basically both said our frustrations and every player is going to be frustrated not to play,” Dwyer said. “We have a connection. He’s that midfielder that every striker wants to have. That guy who’s going to play that ball through. He’s going to keep trying to play that ball through and I’m going to keep trying to make that run.”
Dwyer and Feilhaber will look to complete their impressive post-seasons with a championship, and for Feilhaber, who scored that memorable winning goal in the 2007 Gold Cup final for the USA, and started in the USA’s Confederations Cup final loss to Brazil, having another chance to play for silverware isn’t one he’s about to take for granted.
“One thing Landon (Donovan) always used to say was 'You’re not in finals very often,' so take that to heart a little bit in the next game we’re leading up to. You never know when you’re going to be back here so that’s how I’m thinking about it.
“I know the work I put in, and we put in to get there, and if we can play the way we played tonight in the final I think we’ll be okay.”