Benny Feilhaber: Born Again in Baby Blue

People used to ask questions about Benny Feilhaber's commitment & work rate. But since the playmaker pulled on Sporting Kansas City blue in 2013, no one asks those questions anymore. They don’t have to.

There were times when Benny Feilhaber was too good for his own good. He’s a natural playmaker, rare in the American game. He sees angles most don’t. No one ever doubted his talent. They couldn’t. But whispers followed him from club to club. They weren’t all fair, but they asked the same hushed questions: Does he work hard enough? Is he consistent enough? Is he fit enough? They’re the kinds of questions often asked behind the backs of geniuses. But since Feilhaber pulled on Sporting Kansas City blue in 2013, no one asks those questions anymore. They don’t have to.

“The one thing you could always say about Benny is that he’s a very, very good soccer player,” said Peter Vermes, Kansas City’s coach and the man who took a chance on Feilhaber in 2013 after injuries and a nomadic stretch led to a loss of confidence. “But a lot of times Benny got a pass because the attacking side of his game was so good. Defense wasn’t a priority.”

(Ecstasy: Benny Feilhaber is chased by DaMarcus Beasley in one of his 43 caps for the U.S. National Team)

Feilhaber, now 32, was six-years-old when his family emigrated from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to New York’s suburbs. The game was in his blood, but not just the game – the beautiful game. What they call Jogo Bonito in Brazil, a country where flair players are adored, cultivated like wildflowers on the cliffs. He’s still a rabid supporter of Botafogo and there’s a twinkle in his eye and a softness to his touch that wouldn’t be out of place in the folkloric barefoot beach games of Rio. Soccer connected him to where he came from, where he left grandparents and uncles, aunts and cousins. He's supple, a schemer with a third eye he uses to make triangles out of dead-ends.

Too Good to Ignore
He wasn’t recruited to play at UCLA as a teenager, but he was admitted to pursue his studies there. He planned to walk-on to the soccer team, to trust in his talent and give it a go. Feilhaber was so good in a casual kick-around before his freshman year even started, that one of the other boys scurried home with dinnertime tales of a talent worth talking about. That boy’s name was Kurt Schmid and his dad happened to be Sigi, the American coaching legend who was then in charge of the U.S. Under-20 National Team.

Feilhaber made the Bruins squad and became a standout in midfield. No surprise there. Soon he was in Holland playing in the FIFA World Youth Championship with the U-20s, where he went all 90 minutes of a 1-0 win in the group stages against Lionel Messi’s Argentina (who later went on the win the title). Peter Vermes, Schmid’s assistant in the Netherlands, made a mental note of this player, a rare talent worth remembering. “I got to know what Benny was about in Holland and what made him stand out as a player,” said Vermes, now one of the biggest names in American coaching and the man credited with finally getting the best out of the enigmatic midfielder with the million-dollar smile.

Feilhaber put his diploma on hold when the offers started pouring in from overseas. He opted for Bundesliga side Hamburg. On his way to Germany, the youngster, who was not yet 20, inverted the path his Jewish grandfather took when fleeing Europe and Nazi persecution in the late 1930s. His star was on the rise. In 2007, he was a regular in the U.S. National Team and scored a screamer of a volley against Mexico to win that year’s CONCACAF Gold Cup. The tournament qualified the U.S. for the 2009 Confederations Cup in South Africa, where Feilhaber played a key role as the U.S. beat favorites Spain and reached a first-ever global Final.

(That goal: Feilhaber scores a stunner against Mexico in the Final of the 2007 CONCACAF Gold Cup)

There was only one direction for Feilhaber to go: Up, Up & Up. But Injuries crept in, as they do. Hamburg lost faith and let the player go. A stint in England with Derby County didn’t go well, a coaching change left Feilhaber languishing. Not all coaches care much for the wildflowers. They want horses and track stars. Role players. Utility men. They wanted a more American American. A ball-winner. A destroyer. By the time he landed back in the States, six years of Feilhaber’s career had passed with much of it spent in Denmark or in reserve squads, rehabbing injuries and missing out. No longer a regular pick for the national team, not everyone remembered the name Feilhaber.

The Oddest of Odd Couples
But Vermes did. And he took a chance. He didn’t consider it a gamble. The Kansas City coach knew the juice was worth the squeeze. “It felt like home right away. From the get-go,” said Feilhaber, who arrived in KC in 2013 knowing full-well what was expected. He knew Vermes as an assistant coach in a youth team, the guy you could go to for a joke or a little sympathy. But in Kansas City, Vermes was, and is, the boss. Plain and simple. It’s his way or the highway.

“He can be tough to play for; he won’t hide that and we all know it,” said Feilhaber with a little chuckle, talking about his coach whose three-decade devotion to his flat-top hairstyle is a good indication of his interest in keeping things simple. “If you’re not doing what he wants, well you’re going to hear about it. I got a lot of that my first year. It wasn’t always easy, but I learned to adapt. It took some getting used to. I won’t lie about that.”

(Feilhaber up against Cesc Fabregas - then of Arsenal - in a rare appearance for Derby County in the English Premier League)

Vermes can’t help but laugh. He and Feilhaber might be the oddest odd couple Major League Soccer has ever known. “I told him what I expected when I brought him here but I also told him I believed in him and knew what he was about,” said Vermes, who calls Feilhaber “a complete professional” and says his commitment is second to none. “I’ll admit, sometimes we had to be a little stern with him. We had to be a little hard on Benny.”

Like many folded under Vermes’ big wing in Kansas City, Feilhaber was soon back to his best. Only better. He raised eyebrows. “My consistency came back because I worked hard at it,” he said of that 2013 when he won the league with KC and seemed reborn as a player. “There were still ups and downs but that was a special year.” National team call-ups came again and he only just missed out on his second World Cup in 2014 (in his native Brazil). He hustled back to help win the ball. He worked both sides of the game. He made up for lost time and grew into a leader in a team where you either get in line or get on the next bus.

Wunderkind no More
“I’m the oldest guy in the team right now!” admitted Feilhaber. He’s a long way from the wonderboy he once was and his voice cracks in disbelief, wondering where all the years went. “It’s crazy, but I guess time goes faster than you think. It doesn’t seem that long ago I was in Hamburg and the idea of being a leader, or leadership at all, wasn’t a thought that crossed my mind.”

In Kansas City, who are taking aim at their fourth U.S. Open Cup crown, Feilhaber’s in a team with a whole host of leaders, all knowing exactly what’s expected. He calls it a “five-headed monster” of leadership and it starts with captain Matt Besler and Ike Opara at the back. Roger Espinoza, the battler, in the middle and Graham Zusi, with his quiet lead-by-example-manner, out wide. And then there’s Benny, all grown up and ready to help.

(Working for it: Feilhaber has been fighting and scrapping since joining SKC in 2013)

“It’s not a natural thing for me to scream my head off,” said Feilhaber, who set up two goals in an epic Open Cup Quarterfinal against holders FC Dallas in June. It was a night when SKC had to play nearly 90 minutes a man down, and his spark was needed near the end. “But when you look around the locker-room and you see guys there and you have ten times the experience they have, you have to step up. You have to give advice. It’s important and I learned that somewhere along the way.”

You can always tell when a player’s happy. When he’s right where he should be. This Feilhaber is not the same player who landed in Boston after Chivas USA and Philadelphia both passed. Something’s lifted him up. And it’s not just one thing. His own effort and pride, mixed in with a place that feels like home and a coach who never doubted or judged him before the jury was in. Roars of appreciation at Children’s Mercy Park have replaced the whispers that once followed him. “When you feel like you’re home, and you have that happiness, it pushes you a little harder,” said Feilhaber, his voice softened with gratitude toward the end of a long conversation. “Just having the best players doesn’t always get you there.”