Tuesday marked the beginning of the US Men’s National Team January Camp. It’s a new year and a new regime. 32 MLS players have arrived in Carson, California with a chance to impress the new(ish) head coach, Bruce Arena.
You’ve got bright eyed first timers like Kekuta Manneh & Walker Zimmerman who are no doubt anxious to impress. There are guys like Juan Agudelo who want to establish themselves as regulars. And of course the seasoned vets like Nick Rimando - who is at his 87th January camp, or something.
But perhaps none of them are happier to be on that training ground than Benny Feilhaber.
It has been three years since he was even given a chance in camp. And about six years since he last played in a competitive match for the Red, White and Blue.
But the Brazilian born midfielder has 41 caps under his belt and is a World Cup veteran after three appearances in 2010 (he was right there behind Donovan to score the winner against Algeria). He represented the US at the 2008 Olympics and was a key player for the 2009 Confederations Cup final team.
Oh yeah and not a big deal or anything but he handed the Americans the 2007 Gold Cup with this screaming volley against Mexico (below).
His freeze-out under Jurgen Klinsmann is well known. Benny understood the situation and reached the point of no longer getting his hopes up. For one reason or another, Jurgen had simply decided he wanted nothing to do with him. How the recently dismissed coach didn’t think his team - that lost to Panama in the 3rd place match - couldn’t have used Feilhaber, and the fantastic season he was having, in the 2015 Gold Cup I will never know. But I digress.
As fans got up in arms each time he was left out, Benny remained professional and went on to be an MLS MVP finalist for Sporting KC. “I feel like I'm playing the best soccer of my career, but I don't get the opportunity to play for my country,” he said last year. “It's something I've kind of accepted. It is what it is. It's not going to happen with Jurgen as coach.”
....With Jurgen as coach.
Well JK finally got the boot. The attacking midfielder was quite pleased.
— Benny Feilhaber (@b_feilhaber22) November 21, 2016
I’m sure immediately after hanging up when he got the call he let out one of his patented “YAHHHH” screams, but this is how he claims it went down.
“First thing that went through my mind was that I was excited and very happy that I was getting an opportunity to get back with the national team.” Feilhaber went on to explain, “It's been a long time since I played a competitive match with the national team and since that time I feel like I've improved as a player and I'm happy to be able to try and prove this now.”
Real Salt Lake, the Houston Dynamo, and opposing fans who like to boo him all know this very well by now, but Benny is one of those cold-blooded athletes who will rise to the occasion. His haters are his motivators. He isn’t the kind of guy you mess with to throw him off his game. Benny may get red faced and scream his head off, but he finds a new level in that passion. He’ll get angry, yet focused.
Boo him if you want, but he will slice through your defense or score a screamer from 30 yards out. And then he’ll probably even put his hands to his ears and ask you for more.
It was a very public feud with the former head coach and Feilhaber wasn’t shy in his criticisms. But now that he is back I asked him if we might see some of that fire in his return. As you can expect from a media trained SKC player, he gave a professional response and downplayed anything that is in the past.
“I do feel extra motivation to play well and to help the team in anyway I can but not because of any comments from coaches players or fans,” he said.
“I'm motivated because it's a huge honor to play for the national team and it's very fun to play at the international level. The fact that it's been over five years since I played in a competitive match internationally makes me very motivated to be successful at this level at this point in my career.”
Feilhaber just signed a new two year deal with Sporting KC that puts him over the Designated Player threshold, although the contract will be bought down (Garber Bucks). But he turns 32 on January 19th. He was ignored him during his best years, how many does he have left?
A World Cup cycle playing for club and country can be grueling. Moreover, a huge work rate is required of him under Peter Vermes’ high intensity system. If Benny gets himself back on the US squad as a regular, he has a lot of soccer ahead of him with all eyes on Russia in 2018. But he says he is up for the challenge.
“I'm definitely ready both physically and mentally for whatever is to come in the next couple years. I feel like I'm a young 31 because I only became a consistent starter at the age of 25 so I have plenty of miles left,” he quipped.
“I will welcome as many games as I can possibly play in until l can't do it anymore!” he said before departing with a wink.
The qualities that have always made Benny successful on the field, are not likely to fade with age. He will be up to his tricks for several years. The dinks, chips and carving through balls will continue. His creativity and feel for the game will make him an asset to the US and SKC.
January Camp has begun. Prohibition has ended and Benny is back!
The USMNT will need Feilhaber - and all his teammates - in top form as they look to salvage a horrid start to World Cup Qualification.