Analysis: How will Feilhaber fit with Nicol's Revs?
So Benny Feilhaber is officially, and for the foreseeable future, a member of the New England Revolution.
It’s a tricky fit.
Feilhaber’s been called a central midfielder in nearly every analysis to come out of the American soccer press over the past week, but while he can play that spot, it’s not actually where he solidified a role both professionally and internationally. Instead, it was on the left side of midfield where Feilhaber came into his own with both AGF Aarhus in Denmark and the US national team.
His best moments in US colors – with the exception of the 2007 wonder-strike in the CONCACAF Gold Cup final against Mexico – came last year at the World Cup against both Slovenia and Ghana. In both those games, Feilhaber came on as a halftime sub and played on a three-man midfield line that went, from right to left, Landon Donovan, Michael Bradley and Feilhaber.
Feilhaber was tasked with changing the shape and tempo of the game, and was successful both times. In terms of both aesthetics and effectiveness, the second half of the Slovenia game may be the high point of recent US soccer history, and Feilhaber had a lot to do with that. His touch and ability to hold the ball in traffic are second to none in the US player pool.
His Danish experience was similar. Aarhus initially projected him as a central midfielder, but after an ineffective first few months, moved him to the left side, where he would flourish and become one of the best playmakers in Scandanavia.
But that’s not how Steve Nicol asks his wings to play in New England.
Under the Scotsman’s guidance, New England have always played a five-man midfield with more vertical wingers – Steve Ralston and Khano Smith in the glory days, and guys like Sainey Nyassi and Zak Boggs this year. None excelled at pinching in to help in possession and tempo; all were or are at their best when working off of the central midfielders and attacking.
Feilhaber doesn’t fit that mold at all. His best work comes in small combinations, not big runs.
The end result? Feilhaber changes positions and becomes a true central midfielder, or the Revs change tactics. It’s easier to imagine the first than the second. Claudio Reyna, the ex-US great to whom Feilhaber is most often compared, spent much of his early days in Europe on the flanks before eventually moving central in his mid-20s (Feilhaber is 26).
If, however, Nicol changes tactics and adopts a 4-4-2 with Feilhaber on the left side of midfield, he does seem to have the pieces to make it work. Left back Didier Domi loves to overlap and would, in theory, combine very well with Feilhaber. New acquisition Rajko Lekic adds to a growing stable of true forwards in Foxborough. And, obviously, Shalrie Joseph is still there to hold down the middle.
What will the end product be? It's tough to say until we get an idea of what Nicol is thinking. One way or the other, though, it’s fair to say that Feilhaber’s addition means the Revs will look significantly different from what they’ve been in the past.
Matthew Doyle can be reached for comment at email@example.com and followed on Twitter at @MLS_Analyst.