Benny Feilhaber was having the most relaxing of afternoons in California on Wednesday. He spent it with his father, the two of them playing in a bridge tournament.
A phone call interrupted the peacefulness.
That’s how Feilhaber learned his offseason home would soon neighbor his in-season dwelling. Sporting KC had just shipped Feilhaber, its playmaking midfielder, to Los Angeles FC in exchange for $400,000 in allocation money.
Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes called Feilhaber to relay the news. The initial reaction was a blend of shock, disappointment and excitement. “A real mixed bag,” Feilhaber called it.
A few hours later, he reflected on a five-year stint in Kansas City that included 29 goals and 41 assists in MLS play. On a tenure that included three championships — one MLS Cup and two more in the U.S. Open Cup tournament.
“It’s one of the most successful things I’ve ever accomplished as a player,” Feilhaber said. “I think we had an unbelievable run, and of course, it’s not just me — it’s all the players, the staff, the ownership group that came in and changed the team.
“It was awesome to be part of that and have an influence in that kind of history for the club. Playing in front of those fans, in that stadium, with the teammates that I had, it’s always going to be something that I look back with more fondness than anything else.”
That’s how it ended Wednesday, along with a goodbye note on Twitter and one year left on a contract that will pay him at least $600,000 in 2018.
The relationship between player and city began five years earlier, in 2013, and not quite so fondly. Feilhaber was benched late that summer on a championship contender. He didn’t even start the club’s opening playoff game. But after Sporting KC lost the first leg of its series with New England, Feilhaber was inserted into the lineup. He dictated the pace of the second leg and responded with a game-tying assist.
The culprit of that match, he says, lies within an untold story. During his benching, after practices had concluded, Feilhaber would drive to 24 Hour Fitness and complete additional workouts to keep himself in prime playing shape.
He started the final four playoff matches for Sporting KC and had two assists and converted a penalty kick in the MLS Cup win against Real Salt Lake.
“I think that made a huge difference because when I did come back, I was fresh, but I was still fit because of the work I was doing on the side,” Feilhaber said. “When I came back, I had the assist in that first game, and then I got some confidence and just ran with it. I think the whole team ran with confidence. It propelled us throughout the playoffs.”
The remainder of his Sporting KC tenure included more ups than downs. The peak arrived in 2015, when Feilhaber broke a franchise record with 20 assists across all competitions. He was an MLS All-Star. He was a finalist for the league MVP award.
“That year was very special for me individually,” Feilhaber said. “I was playing the single best season I’ve had in my career.”
As Sporting KC adapted its style of play in 2017, Feilhaber, who will turn 33 later this month, had five goals and only three assists in MLS competition.
He thought the offseason might bring about the sort of change that arrived Wednesday. Club CEO Robb Heineman hinted at it. Sporting KC signed Yohan Croizet to seemingly start at his position. But after the expansion draft passed without a move, Feilhaber planned on playing another year in Kansas City.
Hence the surprise.
“I think this year wasn’t my best year. I think I could’ve played better,” Feilhaber said. “With the way we played, I played a little less offensive than I have the last couple of seasons.”
Feilhaber’s new club, LAFC, will make a trip to Children’s Mercy Park in its inaugural season. The schedule is set to be announced Thursday afternoon.
But for Feilhaber, this is where it ends in a Kansas City uniform. On an offseason day in California, with a phone call from a now-former coach with whom he had a precarious start but, eventually, a decorated five-year run.
“I think the conversation with Peter was a good one,” Feilhaber said of the call. “I think we both feel the same way — where we appreciate the time we had and we both leave happy with what we achieved.”