FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Sometimes the most important tactical decisions come not from the coach prior to the game, but from the players themselves after the match has already begun.
That was the case for the New England Revolution on Wednesday night when an on-the-fly switch by Benny Feilhaber helped turn what looked like a potentially disastrous first half into a strong, confidence building opening 45 minutes against Manchester United. After the Revs were constantly on the back foot in the opening minutes, Feilhaber, who was originally positioned right behind the Revs striker Rajko Lekic in their 4-5-1 formation, dropped deeper into the midfield beside captain Shalrie Joseph and Pat Phelan.
“He again used his brain,” said head coach Steve Nicol. “We hoped to have him playing in front of Shalrie and Pat, but he wasn’t getting on the ball. He made the adjustment himself to get on the ball and it certainly paid [off] for us.”
The move aided the Revs on both sides of the ball as Feilhaber helped the team better maintain possession in midfield, sparked attacks and made a few crucial saving tackles.
“Benny was awesome,” said Joseph. “He fell into the spaces and I just worked off of that. I told him if he could get it I’d work off of him.”
The pair were heavily involved in just about all of the Revs attacks with Feilhaber starting the play that led to Joseph’s 12th minute chance by sending a smart pass to find Chris Tierney in space. Tierney then found Joseph in the box with a cross that the Grenadian would head just wide.
While Feilhaber often wasn’t as far forward as he was on that early play, he managed to keep the offense going, showing great vision to find open teammates up the field on the attack.
“Whenever he had it he was picking our players out,” said Nicol. “That adjustment was his own. Again that shows you what an intelligent player he is.”
Yet it was his defensive effort that stood out the most early in the match. On an early United chance, Dimitar Berbatov was one-on-one with A.J. Soares and looked ready to round the rookie defender and go in alone on goal before Feilhaber stepped in to save the day.
“I was just trying to get back in a position to try and help us out,” said Feilhaber. “He was trying to take A.J. on to the right and I kind of came in from behind. He’s got a lot of technique, so he’s going to be able to do things. But maybe he’s not the fastest guy, so I just tried to kind of run back with him and kind of catch up and I was able to do that.”
But that was just one of several key tackles for the U.S. International. Feilhaber was extremely active on the defensive end, often tracking back even farther than Joseph and Phelan.
The experienced creative midfielder set an example for the rest of the team of the full commitment it would take to get a positive result.
“I was just trying to help the team defensively,” said Feilhaber. “That’s got to be the mentality for everybody really; just to try and get back when we lose the ball to help us out.”
And even in Feilhaber’s more advanced position early in the match, the main focus of his spot was to aid in the defense. As one of the key cogs to the offense and one of the few creative players on the Revs, one could hardly fault Feilhaber if his focus was on the attack, but against the Red Devils, everyone needs to know their role on the defensive end.
“Our initial goal was to try and take away some of the balls that [Michael] Carrick got and I was trying to do that,” said Feilhaber. “Obviously chasing one guy around the field gets tiring, so after the first twenty minutes I tried to come back to try and get the ball a little bit to try and spray it around, but also to kind of gain my legs back after chasing Carrick all over the field. I thought we did a little bit better in the second part of the first half [after I moved further back].”
Of course Feilhaber would later add to his contributions by setting up the Revs lone goal of the match, blasting a free kick that deflected off Kenny Mansally before going into the net.
The goal did little to prevent the eventual 4-1 loss the Revs suffered after a collapse early in the second half, but it was just another highlight to an impressive performance for the 26-year-old.
And thanks in part to Feilhaber’s strong game the Revs had at least one half they could be proud of.
Sean Donahue is the co-founder of New England Soccer Today (www.nesoccertoday.com), which covers professional soccer within New England. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.