The Full 90

Benny Feilhaber making an early season MVP case

Sporting KC midfielder Benny Feilhaber (10) controls the ball against Chicago Fire defender Matt Polster (2) at Sporting Park in Kansas City, Kansas, on Sunday, May 3, 2015. Sporting KC defeated the Chicago Fire 1-0.
Sporting KC midfielder Benny Feilhaber (10) controls the ball against Chicago Fire defender Matt Polster (2) at Sporting Park in Kansas City, Kansas, on Sunday, May 3, 2015. Sporting KC defeated the Chicago Fire 1-0. Special to the Star

On occasion, when the cosmos (and work schedules) align, I’m actually able to attend the Sporting KC game. When that happens, I usually have lots of thoughts on the action. I’ve already doled out some instant reactions and now, after re-watching Sporting Kansas City’s 1-0 win over the Chicago Fire, I have a few more reactions, opinions, analysis and gifs to share.

Oh. We’re going to talk about Benny Feilhaber. Like, a lot.

M-V-P? M-V-P? M-V-P!!!

The long line of mulleted forces of nature: Kenny Powers, Jaromir Jagr, Patrick Swayze, Andre Agassi, Kiefer Sutherland (”Lost Boys”-era), MacGyver, David Bowie (”Ziggy Stardust”) ... and now Benny Feilhaber.

Kansas City’s multi-talented and mullet-burdened (for charity!) midfielder is tearing up the league right now. In fact, he’s probably the best midfielder in the league right now and easily an early front-runner for league MVP.

He’s already gotten some recognition in this direction, winning the MLS player of the month for April.

Feilhaber leads the league with 5 assists (well, he’s tied with FC Dallas’ Fabian Castillo), but could legitimately have about 7 more had his teammates been more accurate — including four from just this last weekend. (Last year, he only had 6 assists in 31 games.)

But it’s not just his added final-third contributions (or hair or trash talking) I want to discuss. It’s this: Feilhaber has become a tremendous two-way midfielder — and has been for about the last 20 months. Which sets him apart in a class almost by himself. He’s not just an attack-minded creator, he’s a ball-winning recovery machine too.

Through the first nine weeks of the season, Feilhaber is the only midfielder in the Top 5 in key passes (passes that create chances) and recoveries (winning back possession for his team).

In key passes, he belongs to the lead group with Vancouver’s Pedro Morales and Portland’s Darlington Nagbe (and ahead of Orlando’s Kaka and Houston’s Brad Davis). For recoveries, he’s amongst New York’s Dax McCarty, Vancouver’s Mattias Laba and Los Angeles’ Juninho (and ahead of Salt Lake’s Kyle Beckerman and his own teammate Roger Espinoza).

You really shouldn’t be able to casually mix between those two groups. Benny does.*

*New York Red Bulls’ Felipe Martins is the only other midfielder in the Top 10 in both categories.

And, of course, he’s had to do everything for this team with Graham Zusi still struggling to regain his form after a leg injury. And Dom Dwyer having dropped off his 2014 pace. And with Krizstian Nemeth settling into the lineup. And with Peter Vermes forced to juggle the lineup at defensive midfielder, centerback, both fullback spots and now goalkeeper.

Benny is Sporting’s constant right now. And he’s helping keep KC afloat (see also the Houston game). I think PV had the best answer for how he’s playing:

Benny Feilhaber’s Almost Assist #1

If only Graham Zusi used his right foot.

Area of concern: Kansas City’s high line and gap control

Kansas City plays a very high defensive line and Vermes likes his fullbacks to push up into the attack — see the goal scored by KC to understand why he likes that. The drawback of that high defensive line is that it can create gaps.

The Fire were able to exploit a pretty sizeable gap on the right side of Kansas City’s defense — first with the combined speed of Joevin Jones and David Accam, then with the technical skill of Harry Shipp. Kansas City’s pairing of centerback-turned-fullback Jalil Anibaba and fullback-turned-centerback Kevin Ellis had trouble dealing with both challenges.*

*For what it’s worth, I believe the reason Vermes has stuck with Ellis in the middle (instead of out right) is because he has the speed to cover for Anibaba — the other way around doesn’t quite work.

You could argue that, if Chicago had a more efficient forward than Guly Do Prado, the game might have gone a different way for the Fire.

Kansas City’s high line (and willingness to push forward on set pieces) can also leave the defense open to counter-attacks.

This should be cause for concern. In case you haven’t watched, D.C. United (Sporting’s opponent this weekend) has the weapons in Chris Rolfe and Fabian Espindola to obliterate a high line (or gap) on the break.

What Roger Espinoza brought back from England

4. A pretty sweet bro-hawk.

3. Increased offensive awareness around the box.

2. The added muscle and strength to stand up to the rigors of bossing a physical midfield.

1. The ability to drop a long-distance diagonal ball like this one:

Espinoza’s been real good at times over the last few games too. For all the doubts surrounding Vermes’ lineup, he’s got two pretty good building blocks in the middle.

Benny Feilhaber’s Almost Assist #2

Yup, that’s a sitter for Dom Dwyer. But, at least he’s getting himself into that position.

Is it time for Tim?

Tim Melia turned in a pretty good game stepping in for the embattled Luis Marin. You can listen to Andy Edwards and I talk about Melia in this week’s episode of Talkin’ Touches. You can also check back in later this week, Melia’s future was a popular question for the mailbag.

Benny Feilhaber’s Almost Assist #3

Why does anyone else on this team take free kicks anymore? (Apologies to Graham Zusi, who is/was also quite good at those.)

Sporting behaving badly?

Chicago wound up drawing the game’s only red card (David Accam’s elbow/petulant push late in the second half), but should Kansas City have drawn one too?

Seth Sinovic (and Vermes) should feel pretty fortunate that referee Jose Carlos Rivero missed Sinovic’s blatant tug on Accam’s jersey in the 62nd minute.

Sinovic was already sitting on a yellow card (for a similiar “this dude is way faster than me so I’m going to mug him to catch up” foul). Not long after this, Amadou Dia came on. (Marcel De Jong has had similar struggles with speed out there.)

Later in the game — the last 15 seconds basically — Chicago had a pretty decent shout for a penalty kick when Matt Besler cleared out Jeff Larentowicz (and the ball) inside the penalty box. I think it was probably a correct no-call, but I’ve seen that tackle called as a foul before in this league.

Benny Feilhaber’s Almost Assist #4

By the way, it’s worth mentioning that last year, only 12 players finished with double-digit assists. If his teammates had connected on the four passes he delivered on a platter against Chicago (and the handful from the Houston, Salt Lake and Philadelphia games), he’d easily ALREADY be in that company.

And yet... even with his teammates missing these good chances, Sporting Kansas City is still among the top goal-scoring teams in MLS.

Imagine what might be possible if/when his teammates can all get on the same page?