Benny Feilhaber was enjoying his final days as a bachelor in Las Vegas when he received an early-morning phone call. His agent was on the other line, notifying him that he had just been traded to Sporting Kansas City.
Feilhaber announced the news to a group of his closest friends in the hotel room, though he admits they were probably more interested in the ensuing bachelor party in Sin City.
But less than a week before one of the most important days of his personal life, Feilhaber’s professional life was set to embark on a pretty big change, too. It was a welcomed one.
“I pursued that trade, so it was perfect timing,” Feilhaber says. “It kind of gave me something extra to celebrate.”
Four days later, Feilhaber married his then-fiancée, Michele, in California. Life was good.
Until his new professional marriage got off a rocky start.
Coach Peter Vermes initially viewed Feilhaber as the box-to-box attacking midfielder that could provide the final piece of a championship puzzle. Instead, his impact on the field felt more along the lines of a designated hitter in baseball.
Plenty of offense. Not much else.
“We had several arguments about his role here,” Vermes said. “They were not easy conversations. He was upset as well.
“I think the transitional moments of the game are very important — especially going from offense to defense. For him, that was the big challenge — constantly understanding that the transitional moment has to be quick and you have to be in a pressing mode all the time when the ball is around you.”
That was then. This is now.
Only one year after Feilhaber wondered if Kansas City was the right path for his career, teammates believe he is playing the best soccer of his life — even better than the run that led to his 2010 World Cup appearance with the United States men’s national team. He doesn’t disagree, even if another World Cup appearance is growing less likely by the day.
After his fitness was questioned throughout last season — most notably by his coach — Feilhaber is the most frequently employed man in a Sporting KC uniform other than goalkeeper Eric Kronberg. He’s also one of the most active, providing the box-to-box, all-round midfielder the team desired when it sent a pair of draft picks and allocation money to New England on Dec. 11, 2012.
“Benny has always had the talent. He’s finding his spot on the field,” Sporting KC captain Matt Besler said. “For me, I think it’s his attitude. He came in this preseason with a different attitude. He wanted to make his mark. He wanted to be an impact player. He wanted to be an important guy for the team, and it’s showed.”
It could be labeled a carryover from the club’s MLS Cup championship run last year, when Feilhaber notched the series-clinching assist in the Eastern Conference semifinals against New England and again in the Eastern Conference finals against Houston.
But that characterization, Feilhaber says, wouldn’t be completely accurate.
“I could’ve been better and more consistent in the playoffs,” Feilhaber said. “I feel like it’s clicking more now than at any point last year. Mentally, I figured out the things Peter wants from me and the things I can do better. It all kind of came together.”
Feilhaber has produced two goals and one assist across seven matches this season, but it’s his focus on the defensive side of the field that has led to his renovation. He has excelled in those transitional moments, Vermes said.
His recent play has been recognized by just about everyone other than United States men’s national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who invited Feilhaber to the January camp but left him off the roster for the team’s international friendly against Mexico last month — a sign that Feilhaber is on the outside looking in for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, his native land.
“I’m biased, but I think he has the talent, and if he’s playing with the confidence he is now, he can be one of the best players in our country,” Besler said.
He was viewed as such when Bob Bradley was leading the national team from 2006-11. Feilhaber made 38 appearances with the United States during Bradley’s tenure.
He’s made only one since.
“Maybe I’m a little bit surprised I never really got an opportunity after having a pretty decent four years under Bob,” Feilhaber said. “But it’s been going on for three years, and I don’t expect it to change for the last few months before the World Cup. I guess I’m not the fit Jurgen is looking for.”
Perhaps not. But he was once seen as an undesirable fit for Sporting KC, as well.
Things can change.