By Ridge Mahoney
It's not often a team comes out ahead by cutting its losses but the New England Revolution may have done just that by shipping out Benny Feilhaber.
An irregular and disquieting 20-month stint ended Wednesday when the Revs announced a trade of Feilhaber to Sporting Kansas City in exchange for allocation money and a pair of draft picks. Claimed via the allocation process in April, 2011, Feilhaber seldom replicated the form and influence he’d provided for the U.S. national team in MLS games.
Nevertheless, SKC coach Peter Vermes cited the acquisition, which cost him a first-round SuperDraft pick in 2014 and a second-round slot in 2015 plus the money, as a critical phase in his midfield rebuild.
“Benny is an excellent, two-way, box-to-box midfielder who has tremendous ability, especially with the final pass,” said Vermes in a conference call with reporters. “His experience with the U.S. national team programs and playing overseas will serve him well in our system.”
The issue with Feilhaber in MLS isn’t necessarily his willingness to play box-to-box, it’s his renowned ability to think outside the box that often seemed smothered, either by the general nature of league play or the systems preferred by former Revs coach Steve Nicol and successor Jay Heaps. Surrounded by better players at SKC, he may find those calm spots amid the storm to thread passes and serve crosses that lead to goals.
Yet a critical factor in the 4-3-3 formation is for every player in the attacking sextet be willing and able to put immediate pressure on the ball when it is lost, and Feilbhaber didn’t display such commitment consistently in New England. SKC may play more of a possession game, which suits Feilhaber’s skill set, but there’s no slack cut in its system for an attacking dynamo like Graham Zusi, and there likely won’t be for Feilhaber, either.
This issue will be especially critical next season for Sporting Kansas City, which conceded the fewest goals allowed (27) in MLS partially due to its success strangling the opposition in the middle and defensive thirds. Two members of that stifling midfield, Julio Cesar and Roger Espinoza, have departed, and though Vermes certainly has the contacts and experience to find suitable replacements the duties and responsibilities are shared throughout the lineup.
Vermes likes to deploy possession players, but he also has direct, aggressive attackers such as Kei Kamara and C.J. Sapong, as well as Zusi, to disrupt the opposition and force scoring opportunities. That approach often works in MLS, which is one reason Lee Nguyen’s busy, active play bore more fruit in many games for the Revs than did Feilhaber’s more measured game.
“In MLS you don’t always have the luxury of finding the game, and that seemed to be what Feilhaber was trying to do a lot of the time,” says former U.S. defender and ESPN analyst Alexi Lalas. “He’s still a very good player, don’t get me wrong, but with Nguyen, he’d get the ball and go at someone and defenses had to deal with him.
“After a while you got the sense every time he got the ball he could make something happen and we didn’t see that every often with Feilhaber in New England. Maybe we’ll see it in Kansas City.”
A problem in many of the 52 matches he played for the Revs was by the time Feilhaber found the game, the Revs had lost it. He scored just one goal in 2012 -- down from four the previous season in roughly the same amount of minutes played -- and while the case can be made some excellent final passes were squandered, he also passed up shooting opportunities. His assists dropped from seven in 2011 to two last year.
Nguyen, by contrast, scored five goals in slightly more playing time (2,386 minutes compared to 2147 for Feilhaber) and earned the same number of assists). This doesn’t make him a better player than Feilhbaber, just one who adapted more adeptly to the demands of MLS.
Even with Nguyen and Kelyn Rowe assuming some of the playmaking burden, Feilhaber took the brunt of defenses keying on him. He suffered 70 fouls, the third-highest total in MLS. Playing with more and better attackers around him Feilhaber perhaps can create or take a chance before a foul takes it away.
The Revs are also implementing a midfield renovation. Ex-Rev Andy Dorman has returned and also due to arrive is Kalifa Cisse, so by declining the option on Feilhaber’s contract and trading him they clear up a roster spot as well as a lot of salary ($446,000 last year and due to rise this season). He signed a new contract, salary undisclosed, to join Vermes in Kansas City.
“I want to get back to playing the soccer that I know I can play,” Feilhaber told reporters on a conference call. “I don't think I've done that for the past year -- at least for a year now.”
And next year is almost here.