Benny Back in the Fold
One of the few members on the U.S. Men’s National Team not born in the United States, midfielder Benny Feilhaber has brought his own unique style to the beautiful American game. With a Brazilian mother and an Austrian father you might wonder about his family’s allegiances, but living in the United States for as long as they have has cemented their camp as proudly American. But that does not mean a matchup against the five-time World Cup champions is any less momentous.
“Obviously when I play Brazil it’s pretty special for me, being born in Brazil and my whole family being from there,” said the 24-year old Feilhaber, who has made 21 appearances for the U.S. Men's National Team.
“I think most of my family is really rooting for the U.S.,” he said. “I know my parents will be, so it’s really special to know that your family is behind you and that they’re all watching back home. For me, it would be nice to play against some of the players that you grew up watching, and that the people back in Brazil admire so much. [The game] is going to be something that’s really important for me and it’s going to be pretty emotional as well.”
After disappointing performances in the first two games of the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup, the U.S. rebounded to win their third group game against Egypt 3-0 before following up with a 2-0 upset win against the world’s top ranked team in Spain. With the previous losses occurring in part due to tentative opening minutes, the U.S. knew that a tenacious start would be the key to upsetting the reigning European champions.
“Starting fast was something that we really wanted to do, and you could see in the first 20 minutes that the guys were out there to win the game,” said Feilhaber.
“We didn’t just want to pack it in and play for the 0-0 result. It was nice to see and I think when we do play like that, tight defensively but also willing to go forward, we can be a dangerous team.”
Stressing the importance of continuing that attack, especially against a Brazilian squad that dispatched the U.S. 3-0 in the group stage of the tournament, Feilhaber notes that tomorrow's game against Brazil will see a U.S. squad in a different mindset than the one that met the Seleção nearly two weeks ago.
“Making it to the final is a huge step for us, it gives us an extra bit of confidence,” he said. “In the Egypt game we knew we had to win and probably win by a lot, and when we were able to get that first goal and we came out in the second half, going for the second, going for the third, it gave us that bit of confidence that we needed going into the semifinals.”
Though he was young at the time, Benny remembers the first, last and only time the U.S. has defeated Brazil—a February 10, 1998, victory in the semifinals of the CONCACAF Gold Cup. With a performance that has become legendary in U.S. soccer history, goalkeeper Kasey Keller provided the shutout that allowed a goal by Preki to snatch victory and move the Americans into the finals.
“I didn’t get to watch that game live, I only saw the replays,” recollects Feilhaber. “Obviously, the repercussions of that game were huge. I think U.S. Soccer grew a bit after that game.”
That memorable victory in 1998 made soccer observers around the world take notice of the U.S. team, and Feilhaber thinks there could be a similar effect in the wake of the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup.
“Beating Spain in the semifinal was a huge achievement,” said Feilhaber, who helped set up the second goal in that game. “If we can follow that up with a good performance and a victory against Brazil, it will really raise the level of awareness in the United States for soccer and raise our expectations as a team.”
If he takes the field Sunday, it will be the culmination of a long rehabilitation and months of hard work after a series of injuries and a difficult stretch in Europe.
After making a big splash in the national team pool with his game-winning volley against Mexico in the 2007 CONCACAF Gold Cup final, Feilhaber experienced part of the roller coaster ride that many young professionals confront when trying to make their way at the highest level in Europe.
An unsuccessful spell at Derby County in England led Feilhaber to try new pastures in Denmark with AGF Aarhus, but his attempt to regain his form was derailed by a lengthy spell on the sidelines with injury. While his U.S. teammates were fighting to earn a berth in the World Cup, Feilhaber knew he needed to take his rehab stint one step at a time.
“First off, right after my injury I tried to keep my head as clear as possible,” he said. “I wasn’t thinking ‘I want to get back to the national team by the end of the year, or by Confederations Cup, or by the World Cup.’ I tried to first establish myself at my club team, gain my full fitness, gain my health. I think I made a good decision in doing my rehab the right way, going through all the little steps that needed to be done to have my knee be fully fit.”
His patience paid off in the form of an invitation to camp before June’s World Cup qualifiers and some minutes off the bench in the team's vital win against Honduras in Chicago.
Expressing his appreciation with the opportunity to again represent his country, Feilhaber says: “I didn’t expect it to come so soon, but I thank Bob for bringing me in and trusting in me. I’ve been trying to work hard while I’ve been here to prove that I should be here and that I want to come back.”
With the knowledge that family members around the world are going to be watching and the confidence that comes from a healthy knee and encouraging recent performances, Feilhaber is looking forward to helping the U.S. advance further then they ever have before in a FIFA tournament. Whether it comes in tomorrow’s Confederations Cup final or next year’s World Cup, he’s willing to do whatever it takes to benefit the team, whether that's in a starting role, such as the one he played against Italy, or as an impact sub.
“Coming off the bench the last few games, I feel like I’ve brought something to the team when I did come in,” said Feilhaber, who appeared as a sub in the last three games for the U.S.
“If I’m on the bench and coming in the last 20-30 minutes of a match I’ll bring my best, and if I’m in from the start I’ll do my best for as long as I can to prove that I’m going to be a positive influence on the field.”