More than a decade after he left UCLA to test the pro waters in Europe, Benny Feilhaber is back in Southern California to embark on the voyage that is Los Angeles FC.
“It was a mixed bag of emotions because as much as I was thrilled to come to LAFC, and it’s something that I’ve thought about over the last few months, it’s always hard to leave people that you know,” Feilhaber said. “It’s easy to see that this club wants to be something special and it goes beyond just the soccer field. There’s no doubt about it, it starts with being a good team, fun to watch for the fans, and connecting with people around the city.”
The club’s aspirations to win out of the gate reflect not only the ambition of successful expansion rivals like Portland, Seattle, New York City and Atlanta, but also the battle to claim a place in the market occupied since 1996 by five-time MLS Cup champion L.A. Galaxy. He grew up playing for the Irvine Strikers in nearby Orange County and played two collegiate seasons at UCLA, which isn’t far from the Galaxy’s original home stadium, the Rose Bowl.
“Winning championships is always going to be a goal of every team but I think the way we are going about it is the right way,” said Feilhaber. “We are trying to connect with people in every part of L.A. I think there is going to be a lot of true fans that are coming to the stadium or watching the games on TV. It’s really exciting to be a part of this group.”
The group assembled so far by
head coach Bob Bradley and general manager John Thorrington is looking pretty solid.
Feilhaber is one of numerous MLS veterans -- joining Walker Zimmerman (FC Dallas), Laurent Ciman (Montreal), Jordan Harvey (Vancouver) -- plucked off league rosters to complement the international star power of Rodrigo Pacheco (Argentina), Diego Rossi (Uruguay), and Carlos Vela (Mexico). LAFC has also grabbed a former Feilhaber SKC teammate, winger Latif Blessing, and Costa Rican striker Marco Urena, left exposed by San Jose in the Expansion Draft.
“We do feel good about the players we’ve been able to acquire from around the league,” said general manager John Thorrington during a phone interview this week. “Our observation is having that solid group that knows what’s like to be in Houston with a one o’clock kickoff and what it’s like to play in Yankee Stadium, those things are valuable when those challenges arise. “We certainly have been intentional about acquiring those kinds of guys.”
In his seven MLS seasons, Feilhaber has come to grips with those aspects of MLS while scoring 34 goals and amassing 52 assists while playing 209 regular-season and playoff games. His numbers dipped last year to five goals and three assists in 30 games (24 starts) in a rather turbulent year for SKC, which shipped off striker Dom Dwyer in August and ended its season in the Knockout Round.
With LAFC, Feilhaber will have a potent array of attacking partners starting with Vela, lured to MLS after scoring 54 goals in five seasons for Spanish club Real Sociedad. Feilhaber set his MLS career best of 15 assists in 2015 and that figure could be under threat.
“Whenever you get to play with quality players," said Feilhaber, "guys who have the ability to do the things that Carlos Vela can do, you are excited to be alongside them.”
Another reason for Feilhaber’s eagerness to join LAFC is the presence of Bradley, who established Feilhaber as a regular member of the USA team and gave him crucial minutes in the 2007 Gold Cup and 2010 World Cup.
“Bob was instrumental for me in terms of becoming the player that I am,” Feilhaber said. “That time with him helped me become that player that I was in the last five years with Kansas City.”
Bradley and Thorrington regard Feilhaber as a key piece in establishing LAFC as a team that can win and look good doing it. In a market occupied by the most glamorous and successful team in league history, it’s the only way to go.
“Benny's a good player,” Bradley told the Los Angeles Times. “As we've been working to build our team we've clearly put an emphasis on guys that have football quality and football brains. Benny fits all that.”
Los Angeles FC:
IN: Monday Bassey Etim (Montverde Academy, free), Carlos Vela (Real Sociedad/ESP, transfer), Rodrigo Pacheco (Lanus/ARG, loan), Omar Gaber (FC Basel/SUI, loan), Walker Zimmerman (FC Dallas, trade), Tyler Miller (Seattle Sounders, Expansion Draft), Latif Blessing (Sporting KC, Expansion Draft), Marcos Urena (San Jose Earthquakes, Expansion Draft), Jukka Raitala (Columbus, Crew, Expansion Draft), Raheem Edwards (Toronto FC, Expansion Draft), Jordan Harvey (Vancouver Whitecaps, MLS free agent), Laurent Ciman (Montreal Impact, Impact, trade), Calum Mallace (Seattle Sounders, Re-Entry Draft, Stage 2), Benny Feilhaber (Sporting KC).
OUT: Jukka Raitala (Montreal Impact, trade), Raheem Edwards (Montreal Impact, trade), Carlos Alvarez.
Goalkeepers: Tyler Miller.
Defenders: Laurent Ciman, Omar Gaber, Jordan Harvey, Walker Zimmerman
Midfielders: Monday Bassey Etim, Benny Feilhaber.
Forwards: Latif Blessing, Rodrigo Pacheco, Marcos Urena, Carlos Vela.