Too good to Feil?
Does the enigmatic Benny Feilhaber have a future in Jurgen Klinsmann's team?
The just-concluded January camp for the U.S. men's national team is supposed to be about finding answers. But in the case of Benny Feilhaber, three weeks of practices and games have left only questions, the most pertinent of which is: Will manager Jurgen Klinsmann be able to find a place on his A-team roster for one of the most technically gifted operators in the player pool?
At first glance, the answer seems to be a no-brainer. Of course Klinsmann, with his emphasis on a possession-based style and technical proficiency throughout his squad, would have Feilhaber on board. But when it comes to the New England Revolution midfielder, matters have always been complicated. His impressive vision and passing have at times been counterbalanced by lack of attentiveness to defensive duties, and there are moments when Feilhaber's own instincts can hinder his effectiveness. When hampered by fatigue or opposition double-teams, Feilhaber might resort to beating opponents off the dribble instead of relying on his exceptional distribution, resulting in loss of possession.
But when Feilhaber is on form, his impact resonates. Everyone remembers his sublime volley that won the 2007 Gold Cup final against Mexico, yet there were also several instances of more subtle, no less important contributions. During qualifying for the 2010 World Cup, Feilhaber came off the bench several times to provide tempo-controlling passes that helped secure victories, most notably the home win against Honduras.
None of that seemed to matter during Klinsmann's first months in charge. Granted, Feilhaber was attempting to settle into a terrible New England side, but he was getting games and eventually began to find his feet. Yet no call came.
That is, until the beginning of this month. At age 27, it's still far too early to call this Feilhaber's last shot. But as he discussed the opportunity in front of him, there seemed to be an urgency about the midfielder's manner, as if he realized that the chance to spend three weeks under the guise of the national team manager was one that couldn't be squandered.
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"I definitely thought that I would get called in again," he said. "I knew that Jurgen is watching the games in MLS, and you've just got to keep going. Once he thought I was ready to get called in, he called me in. I've got the opportunity now, and all that stuff in the last six months goes in the bin now. You're here, and you've got to prove yourself and show to Jurgen that you deserve to be here."
Furthermore, the opportunity to play in a system that is ostensibly more attack-minded held considerable appeal to Feilhaber, given his penchant for playing possession-building passes. Klinsmann's desire to press high up the field also seemed to suit the midfielder in that it would allow him more opportunities to operate in the attacking half. As for precisely what position he might occupy, Feilhaber insisted he's flexible.
"Sometimes it really depends on the game, the style of the team I'm playing for -- whether it's here or in New England -- the style of the other team," Feilhaber said. "Sometimes I felt, with New England, more comfortable playing in the middle because I want to get the ball as much as possible and be able to spread it out to my teammates and put my mark on the game. When I was playing in Denmark I was more comfortable playing on the left because we had a really good possession-oriented team. I could get the ball out on the left and be a little bit more offensive-minded and go at people and combine."
"I think my most comfortable position right now is that central midfield position -- with that freedom to go a bit further up."
Klinsmann, for his part, said he was curious to see how Feilhaber adapted to the high-intensity training that defined his January camp. Could the midfielder maintain his level of technique under intense pressure and at a high speed?
"I know a lot of highly technical, gifted players, but then you get them up to the international speed, and boom -- it's not there anymore," Klinsmann said. "[Feilhaber], he's doing well. It's enjoyable to watch him. He's hungry. He came back into MLS, which is fine; he gets his games, he gets his rhythm. And he has goals that he's set for himself."
One of those was to start the Jan. 21 friendly against Venezuela, and start Feilhaber did, operating in his preferred role as an attacking midfielder underneath a lone striker. Then, through 60 eventful minutes, the reasons that opinions on Feilhaber are divided were all on display. For some, the midfielder's incessant barking at the referee was what stuck in the memory, even as he was rag-dolled on several corner kicks. For others, the two clear-cut chances Feilhaber set up (with his typically precise passing) made the biggest impression, even though both opportunities were squandered by Brek Shea and Jermaine Jones.
The fact that Klinsmann opted to take Feilhaber off, even as he was clearly the most creative player on the field, was a head-scratcher. But that was a mere prelude to Wednesday night's game against Panama. With Klinsmann opting for a two-striker alignment, Feilhaber's spot in the lineup was sacrificed, and any plans for him coming on as a substitute were scuttled thanks to Geoff Cameron's ejection early in the second half.
"[Playing Feilhaber] is not the right kind of solution in that moment when you play a man down," said Klinsmann at his postgame news conference.
So Feilhaber seems to be going in circles, no further along in his quest to impress Klinsmann than he was three weeks ago. Like Bob Bradley before him, Klinsmann seems capable of trusting Feilhaber only in small doses, or under limited circumstances. It's a shame, given the player's ability. And when one recalls how the U.S. struggled to keep the ball during losses to France and Belgium last year, it seems the Americans could still benefit from what Feilhaber brings to the field. Certainly, a stellar season with New England will help him stay on Klinsmann's radar. Perhaps then the U.S. manager will be able to answer the question of how best Feilhaber fits in.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He is also the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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