Lack of options drives Feilhaber to MLS

[MLS] Six years in Europe is a long time for any American, and especially for a young soccer player trying to establish himself.

With 38 appearances for the U.S., and a background with the 2005 U-20s and 2008 Olympic team, midfielder Benny Feilhaber is an established member of the national team pool at age 26. But he hasn’t played that many more games at the club level: approximately 70 first-team games for Hamburg, Derby County, and AGF Aarhus, which he left last week to sign with MLS about two months before his contract was due to expire.

Aarhus was relegated to the second division last year. Laboring at that level of competition, Feilhaber knew, meant regression. He felt it in his game, he said as much last October when called up for friendlies against Poland and Colombia. He didn’t play in the three U.S. matches this year.

In a conference call with reporters Wednesday, Feilhaber admitted he expected a move last summer, after he played in three of four World Cup matches as a halftime sub when the attack needed impetus. But when nothing arose last summer, nor during the January winter transfer period, and time wound down to the mid-April close of the U.S. registration period, MLS became more and more appealing.

“I just think the timing was right,” says Feilhaber, who was born in Brazil, grew up in Southern California, and played college ball at UCLA. “I’ve had a good time in Europe for six years. My experience has been an important one. I think I’ve improved my football [from when] I first came. I was young, but Europe teaches you things that are tough to learn when you’re playing close to home.”

Four years ago, Feilhaber seemingly assured his national-team slot for at least a decade by hitting a spectacular volleyed goal against Mexico in the Concacaf Gold Cup final. He’s been impressive in spurts, like at the 2009 Confederations Cup, but lackluster in other appearances. Competition from attack-minded options Landon Donovan, Stuart Holden, Jose Francisco Torres and Clint Dempsey, and with two-way stalwarts Michael Bradley, Maurice Edu, Ricardo Clark, and now Jermaine Jones, has marginalized his U.S. prospects.

Yet he is regarded as perhaps the most fluently skilled of the bunch, with a feathery touch, crisp passing stroke, quick feet, and decent shot. To wait any longer to find a fruitful club environment might risk stagnation, since field players normally peak in their late 20s, and missing a short-term goal: a spot on the U.S. squad for the Concacaf Gold Cup, which kicks off in about seven weeks. (There’s also a friendly against Spain June 4 in his new digs, Gillette Stadium, to be considered.)

“Europe has been something I’ve felt has been important to me for a long time,” he says of his development as a player. “To be honest, after the World Cup, I thought there was an opportunity to potentially move from Aarhus, even in the winter transfer window four or five months ago, and it didn’t happen. At a certain point, I decided that it wasn’t necessarily a bad decision to let it go all the way to the summer.

“But at the same time, I didn’t know if I was going to get an opportunity like this that came up right now. Had this opportunity come up two months from now, then maybe I could have waited and checked out all the options. But at this point, I thought it was such a good opportunity that I really couldn’t see it pass by.”

Feilhaber joins a Revolution team to which another veteran of Danish soccer, striker Rajko Lekic, has recently been added in a significant overhaul. Two Frenchmen – Didier Domi and Ousmane Dabo – and Argentine defender Franco Coria were signed in the offseason, and rookies A.J. Soares and Stephen McCarthy have already seen regular playing time.

How head coach Steve Nicol will incorporate Feilhaber and Lekic into an attack that features Serbians Marko Perovic and Ilija Stolica nobody, not even the coach, yet knows. Feilhaber prefers the center, as most ball wizards do, but he’s not out of place on either flank.

Once Nicol actually gets to meet his new player, the process can begin, assuming that there isn’t a trade being negotiated behind the scenes. The Revs used their No. 3 slot in the MLS allocation order to acquire Feilhaber and by doing so have dropped to the bottom of the list.

Vice president of player personnel Mike Burns confirmed that there were trade discussions but would not go into specifics. “All I’ll say is that yes, there were some teams that contacted us about Benny,” said Burns. “In terms of what teams, and what teams offered, I’m not comfortable getting into those details.”

The Revs have been labeled as stodgy and straightforward in the past, despite fielding clever players like Joe-Max Moore, Dempsey, Pat Noonan and Steve Ralston. New England has relied more recently on the strength and power of Shalrie Joseph, and the speed of Kenny Mansally and Sainey Nyassi. Feilhaber is certainly a different element.

Reports have pegged his salary at approximately $400,000, which would be the second-highest on the team behind Joseph ($475,000) based on last year’s figures, and about the same as Red  Bull attacker Dwayne De Rosario ($443,750). Salaries for the current season won’t be released by the MLS Players’ Union for at least another month.

“Easily Benny gives us options,” says Nicol. “We can play with three [in central midfield], we can go with two. The good thing for us is we have options. Once he gets in and gets settled in with us, we’ll decide what’s ultimately best for us, and him, as well.”

Said Feilhaber of his new situation, “It’s similar to what coach Steve Nicol said – I don’t exactly know what to call him yet since we haven’t been formally introduced. I feel I’m a good passer of the ball, I’m pretty calm on the ball and I can spring the team into the attack. That’s definitely what I’m going to try to bring to the team.”

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