Benny Feilhaber slowly removed his jersey, slumped back into his locker and sat on a wooden ledge intended for his clothes and personal items. Reporters quickly swarmed, firing away a series of questions centered on the most significant play of his first season with Sporting Kansas City.
The fatigue evident in his voice, Feilhaber answered six minutes of questions — nearly every one of them about his perfectly placed assist on a Dom Dwyer goal that served as the game-winning score in the Eastern Conference finals against Houston.
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But his coach, Peter Vermes, wanted to talk about a different play — a largely unnoticed 70-yard run Feilhaber made to break up a potential game-tying Houston counterattack.
“That’s the play that stands out to me from that game, even above his pass,” Vermes said. “Earlier this season, he doesn’t make that play. No way.”
It hasn’t been a quick process.
In need of a playmaker in its midfield, Sporting KC landed its prized acquisition last December. He came at a lofty price.
The club sent allocation money and two draft picks to New England for Feilhaber, a technical midfielder viewed as perhaps the final piece of a championship puzzle.
It didn’t go as planned. Not initially.
Two months into his first season with Sporting KC, Feilhaber spent more time on the bench than he did the playing field. He started only two of nine games in a two-month stretch from May to July.
He was, by all indications, falling out of favor with Vermes.
“I was down,“ Feilhaber said. “I felt like I was fighting for my job. And in some ways, I was losing.”
Among other things, Feilhaber says he struggled with the physical demands of playing in the Sporting KC system — or being “Sporting Fit,” as Vermes calls it.
“Players who come here have different adaptation periods. I think over the course of the year, he’s had situations where he’s had two steps forward and one step back,” Vermes said. “A lot of that is still understanding the system of play (and) what his role and responsibility is within that system. The other thing is we have a high demand from a physical perspective. That takes some times to get used to.”
He’s finally there. The progress couldn’t come at a better time.
Sporting KC will play Real Salt Lake for the MLS Cup at 3 p.m. Saturday. Feilhaber played in an important role in the club’s postseason run.
He provided the series-clinching assist in a 3-1 overtime victory against New England in the Eastern Conference semifinals before equaling the task with an assist on Dwyer’s game-winning goal against Houston in the Eastern Conference finals.
“In the second legs of each of the two series, he’s had the game-winning assist. Obviously those things get magnified and make it look like he’s playing so much better,” Vermes said. “What I would say is with the intensity of the matches, he’s risen with them as well, which is a good thing.”
That’s no coincidence, says Feilhaber, who played only 45 minutes over the final four games of the regular season.
“I really get focused on these big games. I want to perform,“ Feilhaber said. “... Because I haven’t been playing much toward the end of the season, it’s also an opportunity for me to prove to Peter what I can do. (He) put the faith in me and now I’m paying (him) back.”
In addition to his creativity on two key goals, Feilhaber has provided a steady, poised element to the midfield.
Vermes says Feilhaber’s decision making — knowing when to slow down the game and when to speed it up the game — has shown significant improvement during the season.
He’s done more speeding up than slowing down in the postseason. Of course, that’s as his fitness allows.
“It’s an important part of our team, especially because of the pressure we put on other teams,” Feilhaber said. “We need to know when to slow it down and when to go at them. I think I’ve felt more comfortable since the middle of the year doing that stuff. With each and every game, it gets a little better.
“I think it’s helping me out in the playoffs when everything is on the line.”
Indeed, a time that suits him well.