CARSON, Calif. — Almost exactly a year after he appeared to light a match and torch his chances of ever again playing for the U.S. national team, Benny Feilhaber was on the field, wearing the familiar U.S. colors, smiling and enjoying an opportunity he had essentially given up on.
The U.S. January camp began last week and Feilhaber was back in a setting he knew all too well, but one he didn't figure to be in again after going after then-U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann around this same time last year.
Klinsmann is gone now, having been fired in November and replaced by Bruce Arena. The coaching change figured to benefit a host of players who Klinsmann didn't rate, and Feilhaber was at the top of that list.
"It's something that I wasn't sure would ever happen again," Feilhaber said of returning to the national team. "It feels like a second chance, and because of that, it's very motivating. I'm excited to be back and I want to make my stamp in this camp.
"It didn't feel like I would be back," Feilhaber said. "I had turned that page in my career and tried to focus on the things I could and putting together good MLS seasons. I always watched the national team and it's something that I looked back on fondly, when I had my national team chances with Bob. I closed that book, and to have it reopen again unexpectedly is an amazing feeling."
Arena identifed Feilhaber as someone he planned on bringing in shortly after being hired to replace Klinsmann. The former LA Galaxy coach saw Feilhaber as someone who could help fill the team's need for playmaking midfielders, and sees a player who has evolved and matured in the six years since being a part of the 2010 U.S. World Cup team.
"I think he's a better player. He's more experienced. I just think he's a very good player, and to be honest I haven't checked his history with the national team after 2010, and that's with all of them," Arena said.
"I haven't really looked into what happened with Benny from 2010 on, although I've been around him in Major League Soccer and always thought he was a good player. My impressions in 2010 was that he did a good job, and he's still a player that deserves consideration here."
Feilhaber never did manage to break through during Klinsmann's tenure, only earning a handful of looks. Those looks ended after the January camp in 2014, even though Feilhaber flourished with Sporting KC, even becoming a finalist for MLS MVP after the 2015 season.
It was Feilhaber's frustration with that prolonged absence that led him to rip into Klinsmann's personnel decisions.
“I don’t think that Jurgen calls in the best players that are available to him,” Feilhaber said when asked by Goal about missing out on another national team camp. “That, for me, is a problem. There’s players that are better than other players that don’t get an opportunity with the national team. That, for me, is a much bigger deal than anything else. Everybody points fingers at certain things. But for me, that’s the most important thing.”
When asked about those comments as he found himself back with the national team, Feilhaber made no apologies for his remarks.
"I think it was just me being honest," Feilhaber said. "I think at that point, I had already closed the book on that chapter of my career and it was something that was just an honest answer. I don't want to harp too much on that, but it was an honest answer and I'm looking forward to the opportunity at hand right now and not look back at what has happened in the past years."
Feilhaber's comments about Klinsmann were surprising to some, but not to those fully aware of Feilhaber's frustrations with missing out on the national team during the prime of his career.
"I always knew he was frustrated by the national team situation," Sporting Kansas City coach Peter Vermes told Goal. "At the end, a coach is going to make their decisions, and they're either going to be correct or people are going to think they're wrong. I think enough was enough at the end and told him he didn't have to talk about it anymore. Him saying anything else wasn't going to help. After that, he realized there was nothing more to say."
Vermes believes Feilhaber is returning to the national team as a player who can absolutely help the side in its quest to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.
"He's one of the best technical players, but technical is one thing," Vermes said of Feilhaber. "He's a great decision maker on the field. He sees the game in ways that a lot of players don't, and the bigger the game, the more he'll take the ball. He's not afraid in those moments. He actually wants it."
Feilhaber has rounded out his game since joining Sporting KC four years ago, improving the defensive aspects of his game, and his overall work rate, which isn't a surprise given Sporting KC's high-pressure style.
"With us, we've put a demand on him on the defensive side and he's taken that and owned the responsibility of it," Vermes said. "He's been accountable for it. Every year he's gotten better. A lot of times he doubted himself early on in his time with us, he would get to a point where he didn't think he could push himself further, and we let him know he could push himself further. He has more in him than he thinks he does from the physical aspect."
Feilhaber is one of several talented midfielders in the January camp vying for playing time under Arena, joining Sacha Kljestan and Darlington Nagbe in a competition to provide the creative midfielder Arena believes has been missing from the national team. After more than two years in what felt like national team exile, and six years as a national team afterthought, Feilhaber is determined to make the most of this opportunity he had previously given up on.
"It's been six years and I've changed a lot," Feilhaber said. "I've become a better player. That's one of the reasons why I'm so motivated now. I think when I played on the national team with Bob (Bradley), I was still developing as a player, I wasn't at my best. I feel the last two or three seasons, I played at my best pretty consistently and it's exciting to have the opportunity to play at the highest level, the international level, with your national team when you are playing at the highest level of your own career."