Armchair Analyst: Feilhaber fits as Espinoza replacement
It's no secret that I'm a fan of Benny Feilhaber. I've been calling for his inclusion in Jurgen Klinsmann's US national team since last summer, and have been known to get into the odd Twitter sparring contest or three about his worth as a player. And I've been saying since about mid-June that Sporting KC should trade for him.
My reasoning is simple: Sporting were very, very good last year largely because they could press high, force turnovers and ram the ball down your throat. They'd also beat the hell out of you on set pieces.
Beyond that, they were pretty ineffective. If you could stretch them out and make them play you across the entire pitch, then they could be had. Houston have basically written the book on that over the past two seasons, and KC knew it.
Espinoza was, in many ways, the key to Sporting's high pressure. He both forced and recovered turnovers at a higher rate than any other central midfielder in the league (of the non d-mid variety), and seemed to have a third lung. That indefatiguability caught the notice of Wigan manager Roberto Martinez during the Olympics, and now it's about 99 percent sure that Espinoza will be a Latic as soon as the transfer window opens in January.
WATCH: Feilhaber puts it on a platter
Feilhaber gets his touches in roughly the same spots as Espinoza, something that is neatly illustrated by these heat maps provided by ESPN's Paul Carr (who you should be following on Twitter already, by the way).
But what he does with those touches is different than what Espinoza does. Feilhaber is a chance generator, the best pure central midfielder in the league at generating chances (and big chances) from the run of play over the course of 90 minutes. He could easily have had double-digit assists if the Revs had finished at an even below-average clip. (He was as guilty of that as anyone, by the way – Feilhaber is a very, very poor finisher).
Espinoza was only middling at total chances created in the run of play, and outright poor at making big chances. Shockingly, Graham Zusi wasn't much better.
So Feilhaber gives them a boost in the attack. And you don't lose that much in terms of coverage. Espinoza tracks more, to be sure, but Benny's no slouch.
More importantly, though, he also gives them a bit of patience.
What's made Benny such a standout since he burst onto the scene in the 2005 U-20 World Cup is his ability on the ball in traffic. It's a skill few US players have, both the patience to hold the ball under pressure and the technique to ride a tackle and still make a possession-positive pass. It's gotten him into trouble before, of course, as he can be turnover prone. But SKC recover their own turnovers at a higher rate than any other MLS team, so that's not a deal breaker.
Instead, it's an incentive. SKC can now expect to go east-west instead of purely north-south. They can take the foot off the gas in a way that means something other than putting 10 guys behind the ball while everyone catches their breath. Like Real Salt Lake, Houston and – to an extent – Seattle, they can expect to use possession as a defensive weapon and not just as a means to create chances.
Obviously, the move works for Feilhaber as well. He's going to the most fitness-obsessed team in league history, playing for a coach who's believed in him since 2005 and to a locker room that already has a culture of leadership and winning. For the first time in his life, he's landed in a club situation that suits him.
And maybe that last bit is the part that's held him back from making good on his considerable potential. The real greats don't need to go to the "right" club; they make the club situation "right" by sheer force of will, or outright talent.
Feilhaber's probably not cut from that cloth, and a lot of fans resent him for that.
But I don't. I just see a unique talent who's finally in position to make both MLS and – hopefully – the US national team play a little prettier, a little more patient, a little more cultured. It's the game-change many have been waiting for since 2005, and, in 2013, I'm betting it arrives in Kansas City.