Eight years ago, Benny Feilhaber was thrust into the U.S. national team lineup with Mexico looming and a Confederations Cup berth on the line. Then 22, all the midfielder did was win the CONCACAF Gold Cup final with a volley that remains — considering skill, circumstance and audacity — one of the great strikes in American soccer history.
So could history repeat itself?
There's a good chance Feilhaber isn't on U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann's radar ahead of that big Confederations Cup playoff against Mexico on Sept. 10 in suburban Los Angeles. The 30-year-old, after all, has logged a grand total of 137 minutes for the U.S. since Klinsmann took over in 2011. After earning a token cap during each of Klinsmann's first three January camps, Feilhaber didn't even get that this past winter — meaning 18 months have passed since his last national team appearance.
But his return from international exile is long overdue. Considering this U.S. squad is lacking quality options on the flank and central midfield depth, it would be irresponsible to ignore Feilhaber any longer.
Benny Feilhaber's touches for Sporting KC versus Toronto FC on Saturday.
Building off a 2014 campaign that saw him emerge as the top box-to-box midfielder in MLS, Feilhaber has made the leap from "influential" to "dominant." As Sporting Kansas City recorded a 3-1 win against Real Salt Lake in the U.S. Open Cup semifinals Wednesday, it was Feilhaber who stole the show by setting up Soni Mustivar's equalizer before scoring the 80th-minute winner.
That performance, which saw him matched up against U.S. midfielder Kyle Beckerman, came four days after Feilhaber delivered an admirably active outing in a 3-1 triumph over Michael Bradley and Toronto FC. Through 25 matches in all competitions this season, Feilhaber has compiled 10 goals and 17 assists.
And those numbers only scratch the surface. Feilhaber leads MLS with nine "big chances" set up in league play. While he's seventh with 48 chances created overall, none of those comparable playmakers can rival his across-the-board prowess in the grittier midfield metrics: duels won (124), recoveries (153) and interceptions (31). True defensive midfielders such as Juninho, Matias Laba and Dax McCarty are the ones posting those kind of numbers — and Feilhaber sets up twice as many opportunities as those players.
"His work ethic has been fantastic on both sides of the ball," Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes told reporters Wednesday. "That's why he's found opportunities and we have been successful. He seems to be much more in tune, and because he defends, he has more opportunities to get the ball."
Feilhaber added: "I haven't felt this good, this confident, this fit in my whole career."
It's possible that fitness concerns were what soured Klinsmann on Feilhaber in the past. But he'd work nicely as a tucked-in winger in Klinsmann's 4-4-2 diamond formation. That hybrid role requires players with the awareness to provide width when necessary, but also the technical ability to dictate possession centrally and the workrate to free the No. 10 of defensive responsibilities.
Average U.S. formation in the first half versus Jamaica on July 22. Note the position of left winger Gyasi Zardes (No. 11) and defensive midfielder Kyle Beckerman (No. 5).
Feilhaber certainly is a better option for that role than Gold Cup regulars Gyasi Zardes (a striker) and DeAndre Yedlin (a right back), who lack the necessary polish on the ball. Zardes' tendencies as a forward were evident in the Americans' 2-1 semifinal loss to Jamaica, during which the 23-year-old played too high and too central for the U.S. to maintain a cohesive shape. With Zardes roaming forward and Bradley just beneath the strikers (where he is supposed to be), Beckerman was overrun in defensive midfield. He needed help from a player like Feilhaber.
The 2010 World Cup veteran also would provide more reliable depth in the middle than Mix Diskerud and Joe Corona, who submitted indifferent performances last month. That said, Diskerud gets a bad rap: He's deceptively active on the ball, a goal-scoring threat and underrated as a tackler. But he's still raw.
Can you imagine a refined Diskerud? Well, he'd look a lot like Feilhaber. There are differences, of course: Diskerud is a rhythm passer while Feilhaber takes more risks. Yet Feilhaber offers ball-winning prowess and final-third precision with the consistency that Diskerud needs. He also has the versatility to play as a winger in a 4-2-3-1 or straightforward 4-4-2, as he did with the national team under Bob Bradley.
Although dropping Feilhaber into the U.S. squad ahead of such a pivotal match would be unusual, it's not unprecedented. Klinsmann had never called up Eddie Johnson before abruptly starting him in two key World Cup qualifiers in October 2012. Matt Besler had just one cap under his belt when he got the nod against Mexico at Azteca in March 2013. Alan Gordon returned from a two-year national team absence to play crucial minutes in the Gold Cup semifinal last month.
The grand Rose Bowl stage surely wouldn't intimidate Feilhaber. Forget the intensity of a Confederations Cup playoff — he has started a Confederations Cup final.
Feilhaber won't instantly solve all of the Americans' problems. It's well past time for Klinsmann to end the Ventura Alvarado experiment at center back, and he'll have tough decisions to make in defensive midfield and up top.
But one choice should be perfectly simple: Bring back Benny.