In early December, Benny Feilhaber took his U-17 Sporting Kansas City academy team out west to Norco, California, to participate in the MLS Next Fest, which drew over 300 of the top youth teams across the U-15, U-16, U-17 and U-19 age groups in the USA and Canada.
"It's night and day," he says, comparing his own youth soccer experience to the showcase where his group of 15- and 16-year-old boys finished third in a Generation Adidas Cup qualifying group with Real Salt Lake, Toronto FC and Nashville SC. When he was 16, those three MLS clubs did not exist, and Feilhaber says he was just a guy who liked soccer -- but before anything else wanted a good education.
Feilhaber ended up succeeding in a walk-on tryout for Coach Tom Fitzgerald's UCLA team in 2003, and though he thrived in Westwood and with Coach Sigi Schmid's 2005 U.S. U-20 World Cup team, no one in his family expected him to go pro until a contract was put in front of him. "Once we saw the contract offer, though, we all knew I was about to turn pro [laughs]."
After his international club career — including stints at Derby County, Hamburg SV and AGF Aarhus in Denmark — Feilhaber, with Olympic and World Cup appearances under his belt, returned home and spent most of his MLS playing days with Sporting Kansas City before retiring in March of 2020. He returned a year later to start coaching.
SOCCER AMERICA: Tell us about the MLS Next Fest.
BENNY FEILHABER: I really enjoyed it, I thought it was really well-organized. I was excited by that. All the teams were competitive, it was a fun environment to be in.
It brought me back to a mixture of me when I played youth soccer and also as a professional player because it's more organized than what I remember but still very competitive and it has that youth feel, full of energy, everyone wants to showcase themselves.
SA: What team surprised you the most?
BENNY FEILHABER: Honestly? Our own. Our team has grown a lot over the last six months or so. I took on the 17s in August so from then on until this tournament it's been pretty amazing to see the growth of a lot of individual players, the team itself, the up-and-down nature of players moving from the 17s, to the 19s, to the USL team — and so finally having everyone be back together for this tournament to be as competitive as possible was very exciting.
A lot of coaches say this, but I try to be realistic about my observations and I thought that even though we finished third in our group I thought we were neck and neck in being the best in that group. We really outplayed Salt Lake; Toronto was competitive, we lost on a little bit of a mistake; it was a shame for our players that we didn't get more than three points but our team was the one that surprised me the most.
SA: Do you have guys who are ready to make the jump to the pro level?
BENNY FEILHABER: There's a handful of guys. Mateo Bunbury is one, he's played a few games with [Sporting Kansas City II] in USL. In terms of potential and quality he has all kinds of opportunities with not only the [Sporting Kansas City II] but also the MLS side. So he's definitely a big one [Editor's note: the 16-year-old signed an Academy Contract with Sporting KC II on Sep. 22, thus retaining his NCAA eligibility while also able to play in USL matches].
Edgar Bazan was probably our best player in the tournament [Editor's Note: 15-year-old Bazan joined the U-17 national team for a training camp in early November]. He sees the game a different way. Nicholas Pendleton did really well.
I learn to love these guys from being with them everyday.
SA: What are these players thinking about in the next couple years?
BENNY FEILHABER: If you ask a lot of these guys, they want to go pro. They understand that it's a small percentage of guys who go pro right out of the academy, and they have a good head on their shoulders and they realize maybe the path for them may be X, may be Y, may be Z, it's just not determined.
The guys I'm coaching, 15-, 16 year-olds, I think maybe once they're 17 at the back end of their junior year of high school, then they're really starting to think, "Well, if it's not going to be pro, how can I find a good place to play in college and get a good degree and get an education?"
They're still a few years away from really having to make that decision.
SA: Let's compare that with your experience ... I want to hear the story of how you walked onto Tom Fitzgerald’s UCLA team.
BENNY FEILHABER: It's very different. In my time, going to college was the best way to get to the pros. There was no going to the pros without college unless you're Freddy Adu.
When I was leaving high school, I did not have my mind set on playing professionally. I knew that that was a very far-fetched idea. Education was everything for me and my family and so as much as I didn't close the door on being a professional soccer player, I knew it was very remote and on top of all that I was a late developer.
So with all that in mind I didn't get recruited very much, but in the end I got into UCLA on my academics and Tom Fitzgerald, the coach at the time, gave me an opportunity and said, "Look. If you come here, I've seen enough from you that I'd like to give a trial with the team; I can't offer you a spot but if you do well on the trial then you'll be on the team."
It was an interesting first couple weeks there during the summer time trying to make the team, I felt a little bit out of my element, but coach saw enough of me to bring me on and the rest of history, as they say.
SA: "Developing late." Could you touch on that and what that meant for your pathway?
BENNY FEILHABER: For me specifically, I was a small kid. I wasn't tiny, but I was small and some coaches looked at me and said, "Yeah, he's got something, but he's going to get thrown around at the next level." I didn't get viewed as seriously as some other kids that were a little bit more developed than me. That was one thing.
Soccer in general for me, though, I grew as a player exponentially from the time I got to UCLA to the time I left. For those 18 months or so, my soccer developed at a much higher rate than when it had from 16 to 18.
SA: Playing more? Better players?
BENNY FEILHABER: In one aspect, it was definitely playing more. But I was always a pretty good player in my team and in the competition that I played I was always one of the better players. Once I went to UCLA I had to prove myself against bigger kids, tougher kids. That helped me develop.
Also, for the first time I was in an environment where all the players wanted to go pro. Every single player at UCLA wanted to go pro and I had never felt that before. That kind of rubbed off on me. I wanted to start thinking that way and push myself to different limits I hadn't pushed myself to before. I think that's what accelerated my development at that age.
Benny Feilhaber earned 44 caps for the USA, appeared in all four U.S. games at the 2010 World Cup, and is famous for his game-winning golazo against Mexico in the 2007 Gold Cup final. He also played for the USA at the 2008 Olympics, and on the 2005 U.S. U-20 World Cup team that opened with a 1-0 win over Lionel Messi's Argentina, the eventual champion, en route to a round of 16 appearance.
SA: How did you originally get involved in soccer? First memory from playing in Brazil?
BENNY FEILHABER: Probably more me remembering home videos, but it's me and my dad playing soccer in Brazil at a futsal court by our apartment complex. I may not have been 2 yet. That's like the first thing I remember, my dad swiping the ball away from me right before I was about to score.
When I was 4, I started playing organized futsal, I remember going to those events, taking it more seriously and having that love for the game.
SA: Talk about your parents a little bit...
BENNY FEILHABER: My mom hasn't touched any sport or ball or anything whatsoever. My dad played soccer, not professionally, just growing up. He played in some competitions with his work but nothing close to professional.
He still plays though! He plays in an over-65 league, I think.
SA: They were into you getting into a good school but unaware of the opportunities in pro soccer?
BENNY FEILHABER: I don't think anyone believed in my family, myself included, that I would play professionally until basically, it happened. I think I started feeling like I could turn into a pro when I was at UCLA during that year-and-half span.
When I got called into the U-20 World Cup [by coach Sigi Schmid, in 2005, I remember telling my mom: "There's a chance that I go over there and I play well and someone might scout me and want to offer me a pro contract over there]. She's like, "We'll see when that happens, for now just concentrate on your school work." That was my family's M.O. until I basically turned pro. Once we saw the contract offer, though, we all knew I was about to turn pro [laughs].
SA: Brad Evans shared a similar sentiment when I interviewed him a few months ago; that basically, going pro just wasn't something in your head for guys in your age group who played high-level college ball even in the early 2000s.
BENNY FEILHABER: Again, it's night and day from what my kids are going through these days. I know we'll develop some really good soccer players because of it, but it's also a little sad because these kids feel pressure now. Being good at soccer every single day, they also have to have pressure at school to learn and get good grades — it's kind of a lot to shoulder at that age.
Whereas for me, yeah, I turned into a pretty good player, but I was never pushed or pressured. I never felt any pressure like, "Man, today is Tuesday, I'm going to train with the Irvine Strikers, I need to have the best training session of my life today." That was never the case — it was always, "I'm going to hang out with my friends, I like soccer, I'm a good player, I'm going to go have fun."
So it's tough. It's definitely going to develop some good players, but I think it does take a little bit of that carefree emotion out of it.
SA: Anything from your early years you could share that may have contributed to your rise in the game?
BENNY FEILHABER: Futsal played a big importance in terms of the player that I became. I think I'm a good hybrid between what an American and Brazilian soccer player looks like. Honestly, the UCLA story is the biggest one for me: it completely mentally changed me in terms of what my goals were in life.
When I got there it was about getting a degree in mechanical engineering; by the time I left I was going to become a professional soccer player. It changed pretty abruptly in 18 months.
SA: Did you have soccer-playing role models or favorite teams growing up?
BENNY FEILHABER: Botafogo. My dad has Globo Internacional so he has the channels. We would watch every once a while. I left Brazil when I was almost 7, so we'd watch games in Brazil still when I was young.
I don't know if I ever had a massive soccer idol; I think my dad was the guy I looked up to the most when it came to soccer and, like, would fall back on him and be like, 'Dad, what'd you see in the game? What was good or not?" So he was the guy I sort of leaned on in terms of — in everything in soccer really.
SA: Did you feel any conflict in turning down Andreas Herzog’s offer for you to play for Austria in 2006? [Feilhaber's grandfather was Austrian.]
BENNY FEILHABER: I mean yeah, to some degree. I hadn't been called into the national team and I didn't know if I would be, but at the time there weren't that many young players playing in Europe. I thought I had a good chance. For me, playing with a national team is about: what team do you feel like you belong to? And it wasn't Austria.
I had grown up watching the U.S. national team so it was a pretty easy decision. The only conflict was that it would've been good to get a European passport. That would've helped there but it would've been a business decision not one of the heart. The heart won over the business decision in that case.
SA: Now that you’re a coach, who are some coaches whose philosophy has influenced the way you take to coaching?
BENNY FEILHABER: I've thought about this before I became a coach. Peter [Vermes] and Bob [Bradley] were the ones who had the greatest effect on me as a player. Both of them were able to get the best out of me in different ways.
As much as it's important for every coach to have their own way of doing things, their way of seeing things and in terms of tactics, I'm different from both Bob and Peter — how I see the game differently in little ways, not big ways. The way that they approach the game, the way they approach their players, they were the most influential.
SA: I assume they were some of the most intense, too?
BENNY FEILHABER: Yes and no. For people on the outside I can see how that comes across and even when you're on the inside there are moments that, yes, they're both very tough. They don't let you off the hook on anything. They raise everyone's standards around them. So in that sense, yes.
But they're also guys who have that opposite side of things in terms of knowing when it's time to have less intense conversations. I've had conversations with both of them that definitely would not classify as intense. There are definitely opposite sides of them but I think when it's game time they're laser focused and intense. I'm like that too — even at the MLS Next showcase there was one game specifically where I was just — beside myself to some degree.
SA: Talk about the transition from playing pro to coaching youth? Learning patience?
BENNY FEILHABER: It does take a while to learn the best way to really teach. How to see the game, how to play the game, giving them different situations where they can make their own decisions and have their own autonomy. I would categorize it as somewhere between being a professional soccer coach and being a parent. It's somewhere in between those. There's tough love sometimes, there's honesty sometimes, there's times where you put your arm around their shoulder and pump 'em up and motivate them.
It's all about timing and doing things the right way. I think the one thing that I'm still trying to get better at is that at the professional environment — which is what I'm used to — is that coaches tell you what to do a lot. It's really directive — there's no time for questions.
At the developmental stage where these kids are at, there are moments where you can be asking them the question more than giving them the answer. Letting them think about it and figure out their own way of answering that question.
It is tough for me, because I am used to the directive of, "Hey. You're my No. 9, I need you to make sure you do this so that we can press from this side, or whatever it is." As opposed to, "Hey, what do you see when you're doing this? What do you see when you do that? And how can you position your body in a different way?" Those kind of things are the ones I'm trying to improve on. But yeah, it's basically being a coach and being a parent at the same time.
SA: Most positive developments you've seen recently in American youth soccer?
BENNY FEILHABER: I think the academy is fantastic. It's definitely a lot of pressure on the kids, but we will create many more players with how these academies are set up nowadays. I think it goes from top to bottom as well. We find the talent earlier on, they have better coaching throughout their entire youth. We also develop them psychically better than what I did at that age, which was nothing. I did no weights, no extra running, it was just natural — whatever my body was, that's what it was.
These kids are getting a mini-professional experience from a very young age. That will no doubt increase our number of talented players going forward. Top to bottom now, you're seeing American players get very good contracts. It's not that thought of, "I'm 12 years-old, I'm pretty good at soccer and football, ehh, I'm going to choose football because you make so much more money."
You can definitely set your mind to [MLS] being your career — you're making really good money and that allows players to really commit to soccer at an earlier age.
The development of the player is very positive right now. I can tell you that with players in our academy, the kids look up and see Gianluca Busio become a regular starter in Serie A after graduating from the academy four or five years ago.
It's a real story that happened very recently where kids can be like, "Well, that's what I aspire to be."
SA: Most important challenges in the American youth game?
BENNY FEILHABER: Soccer is not a poor man's sport, unfortunately, in America. In other countries — I grew up in Brazil — every poor kid is playing soccer.
In America it's different, and it's slowly getting better, but it's difficult for poor kids to access the pathway. It's tough for America, for how big the country is, to create a pipeline for poorer kids. I know we're trying to create more futsal courts around the country just like there are a lot of basketball courts, maybe that's something that will help. But it's a difficult problem to find the solution to.
SA: How does your playing experience in Europe inform your coaching style?
BENNY FEILHABER: There are things you learn that you like and things you learn that you detest. I can tell you at Derby County — pretty much everything I learned there I will never use as a soccer coach.
SA: Tell us about that.
BENNY FEILHABER: There's nothing to talk about.
SA: You gotta give us something after saying something like that.
BENNY FEILHABER: It's just not the same sport. I guess a funny story is that one time me and a player named Emanuel Villa, an Argentine who played in Mexico for a long time.
We were there at the same time and one time at a training session he looks at me and goes, "What sport are we playing right now?" And so, it's one of those where it was completely different from how we see the game or how I see the game.
There was a lot of route one, a lot of 1 vs. 1 defending all over the field, things I had never seen in soccer before that didn't translate very well.
So it's about the things you take with you: little things you like, little things you don't like. In Germany I really liked the training setup: on a Saturday when we had a game, Sunday would be our re-gen day where we'd come in early and go on a run we called "a run in the woods" — in German it's "im Wald laufen" — very common.
We would do that, then have the day off on Monday, then have double days on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and then Thursday and Friday would be a heavily modified training session physically so that you're ready for Saturday.
So again, it's all just little things you pick up throughout your career and then you make them your own once you become a coach.
SA: Do you have advice for young coaches who are just getting their start?
BENNY FEILHABER: Just stay in the game — I don't have too much advice because I just started myself. If your passion is to coach, or help in some way and continue in soccer, just stay in the game right out of the gate so as soon as you retire you can find something that you can do within the sport.