Benny Feilhaber bucks popular notions of what makes an American player. He’s not a track star. He isn’t brawny. His work-rate isn’t superhuman. Instead, what stand out are his elegant passing and technical panache. He sees the angles others don’t. His game is subtle.
These rare attributes have made American fans buzz about Feilhaber since he was a teenager. And though his true genius in the middle – a classic No10 creator – might spark the imagination in his native Brazil, a more practical approach in his adoptive US has too often left Feilhaber out in the cold. Criticism has dogged him throughout his career too. 'Inconsistent. Not fit. Hot and cold.' In the seven years since his national team debut, Feilhaber has accrued only 41 caps and scored just two goals.
“Consistency has been a problem, and my fitness too,” the 29-year-old playmaker told FIFA.com. “I’ve had to work really hard on that. There are still ups and downs, but this was a special year,” he said, looking back on a season in which he helped Sporting Kansas City to an MLS championship. It was Feilhaber’s first title for any club. “I’m a better player when I’m fit and I’m not getting any younger, so I’ll need to fight for it from now on.”
From Rio with talent
Feilhaber moved with his family from Rio de Janeiro to the suburbs of New York City when he was seven. A decade later he travelled to the West Coast to pursue a university degree in Southern California, and he raised an influential eyebrow while playing in an informal kick-around. One Kurt Schmid took tales of Feilhaber’s sumptuous talents back to the dinner table, where his father Sigi – then coach of the U-20 national team – was looking for something special to bolster his midfield.
Soon Feilhaber was in the Netherlands, pulling on a USA jersey to compete in the FIFA U-20 World Cup in 2005. His play was outstanding and he didn’t look far off the pace set there by the likes of Jon Obi Mikel and Lionel Messi.
I’m trying to push myself all the time, to work on the things I need to work on. I want to make Jurgen’s decision a little harder.
Scouts took notice too. Feilhaber was offered a professional contract from German Bundesliga outfit Hamburg and off he went, inverting the path his Jewish grandfather took when fleeing Europe and Nazi persecution in the late 1930s. Two years in Germany led to an ill-fated stint in England and later to Denmark with AGF Aarhus. While Feilhaber was unable to achieve lift-off into the stratosphere of Europe’s club scene, his profile for the national team increased.
He played in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and scored the winning goal at the 2007 CONCACAF Gold Cup, sending the States to the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup. There he set up a goal in the historic semi-final win over Spain that Feilhaber calls the “one greatest feeling” of his career. He also played in the final – the first-ever FIFA final for an American men’s team – against his native Brazil, before bouncing back from multiple knee surgeries to play every game of the USA’s run to the Round of 16 at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™.
And though there have been more struggles, Feilhaber has found rhythm and balance. He is determined to align the two sides of his game, to become the kind of modern midfielder US coach Jurgen Klinsmann covets.
A Sporting second chance
This past term for Sporting Kansas City, Feilhaber looked a new man, much improved from his two seasons with New England Revolution. He fought to win the ball in midfield, pressed high, and did the dirty work. Klinsmann, someone intimately acquainted with coupling technique and practical drive during his playing days, has taken notice. He included Feilhaber in his January training camp in Brazil.
Most of Feilhaber’s family still lives in Brazil. “It’s great to be back,” he said. “Having Brazilian steak dinners and helping my team-mates with their Portuguese, seeing my grandparents, it’s just special.”
The taste and feel of his home country and its passions have clearly stoked Feilhaber’s desire to make the team for this summer’s showpiece, his second straight World Cup, and the first time Brazil has hosted in 64 years.
“I’ve been there [Brazil] during a World Cup, and the whole country stops when Brazil’s playing,” the midfielder said, an ardent fan of Rio giants Botafogo. “Being there just got me excited about playing in a World Cup in front of my family and friends from back home. It’s a huge motivation.”
The Americans have been drawn into a nightmarish Group G, alongside Germany, Portugal and Ghana. But Feilhaber looks on the bright side: “Germany might be the best team in Europe and Portugal might have the best player in the world. Ghana knocked us out four years ago and we struggle against them usually,” he said with an impish dismissal, before the Brazilian-at-heart concluded: “But at least we don’t have to play a South American team!”
Feilhaber’s inclusion in Klinsmann’s final squad is far from a given, but considering the improvements and performances last season and the need to have a creative midfield option in reserve, the coach is sure to have a few sleepless nights ahead of his final decision. “I’m trying to push myself all the time, to work on the things I need to work on,” he said, a determination in his voice. “I want to make Jurgen’s decision a little harder.”