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SBI MLS Spotlight: Benny Feilhaber’s improved fitness allowing him to thrive with Sporting KC

Benny Feilhaber 1 (USA TODAYS Sports)

photo by Jerome Miron/USA Today Sports


Two weeks ago, Roger Espinoza teased Benny Feilhaber about his lack of goals. Feilhaber responded in the best of ways, striking twice in the very next game to punctuate a strong month that saw him either score or create more than half of Sporting Kansas City’s goals.

Feilhaber had quite an April, as he directly involved in five of the club’s eight April goals. The veteran midfielder bagged a brace against the Houston Dynamo on April 25, which included a dramatic volley in the 95th minute that gave Kansas City a 4-4 draw, and assisted on three more goals during the course of its three other matches. He also set up numerous other opportunities that were just narrowly missed or mis-hit.

While it was the 30-year-old Feilhaber’s offensive contributions that grabbed plenty of national attention, he also helped his club by doing all of the little things defensively. Feilhaber looked as involved as he’s ever been on that side of the ball, getting stuck in, tracking back and breaking up numerous plays to help win possession for his team.

He looked more like a complete two-way player and less like the offensive-minded playmaker that a few years ago didn’t have the chops defensively, a development he attributes to Sporting KC head coach Peter Vermes, as well as improved fitness.

“I used to be a guy that didn’t have the best fitness, and I definitely got tired throughout games,” Feilhaber told SBI last week. “When you get tired you tend to lack in some areas, typically the area that you’re weak at, so that’s always been the defensive side for me.

“Now that I have that in place, I can do more of the running and then I’m able to, in those moments, to kind of track back, help my team defensively and at the same time do the pressing and help my team win balls and bring energy to the position. I think that’s definitely one of the things that’s most improved and most allowed me to become more of a two-way player.”

Feilhaber has been honing his defensive skills for more than two seasons now in Kansas City under Vermes, who first coached the midfielder with the U.S. Under-20 Men’s National Team back in 2005. Even then, Vermes thought it was “evident” that Feilhaber had the ability to play both sides of the ball.

But whether it was because of his skill set or because of where his coaches thought he best fit, Feilhaber found himself in a more offensive-minded role throughout multiple stops early in his career. He was mostly tasked with winning possession, keeping it and creating chances for his teammates and himself.

At Sporting Kansas City, that is no longer the case.

“The role that we have for him here is that he has to be able to play both sides of the ball,” Vermes told SBI. “In his time here, he’s gotten better and better as each year has gone on and I think he really understands how important it is to value that (defensive) aspect and how much of an impact positively it has on the rest of the team as well when all players are all in pursuit of the ball when they don’t have it.”

As good as he’s looked without the ball in 2015, Feilhaber’s bread and butter continues to be what he can do in the attack. His technical qualities, vision and ability to pick out that deadly final pass have all been on display this season, even more so than in his first two years in Kansas City.

So far, the numbers reflect that. Feilhaber’s two goals and five assists through the first two months of the season have him in good position to break both his MLS-highs of four goals and seven assists. He also stands a strong chance of surpassing his Sporting KC statistics from 2013 and 2014, when he tallied three goals and four assists and four goals and six assists, respectively.

A big contributing factor in Feilhaber’s larger offensive output is his improved fitness – he admittedly has taken that “a lot more seriously as he’s gotten older” – and another is having a defensive midfielder like Espinoza playing behind him.

In fact, Feilhaber believes Espinoza has a “big influence” in his individual success this year.

“Roger is a guy that you always know he’s in the back helping you out in any kind of mistake that you take,” said Feilhaber. “So it allows you to kind of maybe take some more risks going forward because you know he can cover all that space in behind you. Guys on our team, we realize it goes a little bit unnoticed sometimes the amount of running, the amount of work, the amount of how he breaks down the other teams attack.

“But it really helps me be able to feel free to not only go further up the field offensively, but to press higher up the field and create problems for them defensively on our side. He’s a wonderful player, and for me it’s really opened up some things for me on the offensive side of the ball.”

Maintaining this level of two-way play is now the key for Feilhaber, especially since Sporting KC is now in the loaded and competitive Western Conference. The club currently sits in fifth place, four points away from both first and last, and is in need of more consistency in order to make a more permanent move up in the standings.

A way to find that might be to play through Feilhaber some more, as he’s shown so far this year that he is more than capable of handling the load – both offensively and defensively.

“It’s something that I’ve been working on for three seasons now,” said Feilhaber. “Obviously Peter is very big on the defensive side of the ball, not only in a defensive posture but also the pressing that we do, which is mostly in an offensive posture but it does require a lot of work.

“It’s something that I definitely tried to improve in my game, and that’s been necessary to for me to play on this team. Looking back on how I was three years ago, it’s night and day.”


  1. Hope he gets another chance at the national team. If Beckerman can at his age, so should Benny. Would love to see the mullet on the national stage!

  2. Are you telling me no one is going to comment about his retro-mullet hair?!? He looks like an out-of-work porn star…

    I’ve always loved BF, and had great hopes for him since the 1007 GC final goal, but to me he’s been a story of squandered talent. You’re telling me it’s taken him til the age of 29-30 to realize fitness matters in professional soccer?! that’s kookie talk….

    • Benny’s haircut is a result of a charity contest … He had to cut his hair in the manner that the winner of the contest chose.

      Honestly pretty cool that a guy is willing to do that and have a million people bust his balls because they aren’t aware it was for charity.

      • Give TFO a break…he just referenced the 1007 GC final. Good indication that he doesn’t keep up with the latest footy news.

      • Scotty: if you’ve never had typo while writing on your phone, you’re a better man than me.

        And my point in referencing the 2007 GC final is that he showed great promise as far back as 2007 but, except for some flashes at the 2010 WC, I don’t think he’s lived up to his potential.

        But keep on trolling; someone might think you’re clever (but it’s unlikely).

  3. There is absolutely NO reason why Benny shouldn’t be in the National Team Picture. He should be a part of our Gold Cup squad. Out of all of the midfield players in our pool, he’s playing the best but for some unknown reason, that’s still not enough for JK to call him up again. Ridiculous.

    • I would love to see the fabled Bradley-Feilhaber combo finally come together. So many possibilities in midfield open up with a player like Benny in the mix.

    • If I had to guess (again GUESS is the key word) as to why Benny hasn’t been in the team for JK…

      his attitude. You can’t deny that Benny carries himself like a #### and whines/argues a lot. Granted, Deuce and Donovan can act petulant sometimes, but you have to ask yourself as a coach: is a player so talented that it outweighs them hurting the overall team chemistry?? To me, he’s not better than Lee Nguyen, who can’t see the field either for the US. So until he’s so much better than Nguyen, i’m fine with leaving him at home.

      • It may be simpler than the attitude issue.

        Benny admits his fitness was subpar and his defense suffered as a result of it. Given Jurgen’s desire to high press and the reliance that places on fitness, is it any surprise Benny fell out of favor? I wonder if the damage done by that poor fitness has created a gap too wide to close in Jurgen’s mind. I would even argue that Bradley knew this too, which is why Benny was a sub and not a starter during most of Bradley’s time.

      • I think you’ve hit on it. Throughout reading the article I kept going back to….. damn…. wish he’d found this passion/insight regarding fitness and defensive pressure 10 years ago. Rather than being the inconsistent, enigmatic talent… his career WOULD have been much different. We’ve needed this Benny. The age old refrain…. if only I’d known what I know now then. Had the wisdom of age with the vitality of youth.

        Regrets aside….. he keeps it up, there still could be a spot for the Nats as he has a knack and vision we lack!

      • Agree with both comments here. His petulant attitude was always a turn-off, and he always struck me – and likely Klinsmann, who values chemistry immensely – as a bit of an entitled primadonna.

        He was also a complete lightweight defensively. Good, nifty, great quality on the ball going forward…nonexistent tracking back. Klinsmann REALLY does not like that and Bradley didn’t appear to like it much either.

        But hot durn I like the way Benny’s playing now, and it’s hard to miss the rather glaring fact that Benny’s easily the best player on SKC right now – much more impactful than Zusi – and he’s still got that technical ability we never had much of in the pool. He really has become – belatedly – that “complete” player he never was before.

        I really hope he gets a Gold Cup look.

      • Benny can act petulant on the pitch, but jeez, not only does Deuce, but so does Jozy when he’s in “stupid Jozy” mode, and guys like Shea and even Bradley have had their moments too. As an SKC fan who follows club news pretty closely, I haven’t heard one bad thing said about his behind-the-scenes presence. By all accounts he has been a good guy who is well-liked by his teammates. I think if Klinsmann were to bring him back into the national team picture (and I think the only good reason not to would be if Klinsmann genuinely thinks Mix is enough depth behind Bradley in that central midfield passing role), Benny’s attitude wouldn’t remotely be an issue.

      • Eric,

        Mikey, Deuce and Jozy all have produced big time for the USMNT.

        Compared to them, Benny’s output has been small beer.

        So if those guys act out once in a while they have earned the benefit of the doubt unlike Benny.

        I’ve watched Benny do his slow fade for his entire career and this article confirms what I’ve long suspected, that he’s a lazy prima donna who lived off of his 2007 Golazo vs. Mexico in the Gold Cup final for years.

        Since then Benny has never been good for more than 20-30 minutes, maybe a half at the outside. And it showed in the decreasing PT BB gave him, and in his indifferent career in Europe . BB should be angry given how much he supported Benny in his early days.

        I’m sure his new form has not gone unnoticed by JK but you have consider he is competing, more or less, with guys like Mikey, Nguyen, Mix, Shipp, Trapp, Sacha and so on.

        Anyone who wants to b**ch about it should direct their comments directly to Benny, the lazy little s**t.

      • So you mean to tell me that players don’t deserve second chances or other opportunities to “right a ship: sort of speak?? This is the land of second opportunities and Benny is one of our country’s best talents, and has been for some time! All players don’t mature at the same rate, and if this article has any merit when mentioning that he was not always the most fit or tuned in then maybe that was a thing of the past and deserves to be left there. But to say that he shouldn’t be given chances to play with the NATS is moronic and naïve because essentially what your doing is denying our program a creative, game changing type of player that we’ve been clamoring for but yet we keep calling up the likes of Wondo, Beckerman and Brad Evans who are all older than Benny and haven’t provided nearly the same impact that he has in his short time as a national team player! We get it though, JK likes who he likes but we’ve seen how that has worked out considering the grudges he’s held against certain players to prove a point only to see it back fire as a result smh. I hope Jurgen gets this one right though because BF looks like he’s got something going right now!

      • Ronniet,

        ” players don’t deserve second chances ”

        Those are your words not mine.

        If you bothered to read what I wrote I said Benny’s second ( actually it’s more than that, JK has had him before) chance would depend on whether he was better than what is out there currently.

        Guys like Mikey and Mix have been a big part of this program for some time now and Benny is just like anyone else, he’ll have to prove he is a better fit for the USMNT than they are.

        They were earning their place in the pecking order while Benny was figuring out that being in shape might be a good idea.

        Evans, Wondo and Beckerman are popular whipping boys but they have nothing to do with Benny’s position.

        And besides they at least figured out along time ago that staying in shape was a good idea for a professional soccer player.

        As for the grudge thing, do you really think JK and Mikey love each other? However, they need each other so they work it out.

      • i absolutely read what you wrote and it comes off as saying Benny had his chance but blew it because of his attitude and fitness issues! Furthermore you end your rant with calling him a lazy sh*t! Neither one of us is a part of the national team set up so we don’t know the ins and outs of roster selections, etc but i can tell you that BF is better than most of what we have in midfield right now because he provides a creativity and patience on the ball that we’re sorely missing, along with his newly found defensive bite! The question is whether JK will put aside his biases and reward a player that has been a part of the USMNT program for probably as long as Bradley has and definitely longer than Mixx has, and who has went to a WC and actually played while there! Not all players mature at the same rate and if it has been a maturity thing for Benny then why not reward him for current form?! To say Beckerman is not directly affecting a call up for Benny is false because if you don’t call up Kyle, as admirable as he’s been in playing that holding role, you can push Bradley back deeper to where most think he’s more effective, instead of forcing him to play a role that he’s just not suited to play! Shipp and Trapp aren’t consistent enough players yet to consistently contribute to the senior team and neither has an official cap so let’s slow down on trotting out young players before their time!

      • ronniet, I hear what you’re saying, but if JK has a “bias” against Benny, Benny has no one to blame for that but himself.

        BF has been a part of three January camps under Klinsmann – 2012, 2013, and 2014 – and while other guys have used those January camps as springboards to bigger roles within the team, Benny went the opposite direction. I’d suggest reading this article from Steve Davis, written just after the 2013 Gold Cup:

        I know, Jurgen saying Jurgen things. But, he’s essentially confirming what we all thought – it’s not about the talent, it’s about the consistency, the motivation and the willingness to be involved 100% of the time. Combine that with the article here, and the realization that Benny is just now, at 30 years old, taking his fitness seriously, and you get a really good understanding of why a player as talented as he is – and to be clear, he’s one of the most talented players in the pool – has failed to solidify a spot under two different head coaches over the course of almost 8 years.

        Listen, I like Benny as a player. Hell, I have a 2009 US home shirt with his name and number on it hanging in my closet. And I really hope he gets a second chance and takes full advantage of it the way that Beckerman did. But if Klinsmann decides that’s a bridge too far, I’m cool with that. And to act like it’s some huge disservice to the USMNT that he’s not part of the squad, or that JK has somehow left Benny out in the Lichaj-ian hinterlands, is a bit much for me.

      • jhahhahahahahaha, no better than Lee Nguyen, who is a completely one way guy with less technical ability than Feilhaber. Feilhaber is the player JK wants Bradley to be on the national team in that 10 slot but Bradley just isnt that

    • It’s a real shame, because he’s a better, more complete player now than he was when he played well at the 2010 WC. And this has been true for a year or two now.


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