Mention Benny Feilhaber’s name in a circle of US national team fans and chances are it won’t be long before it’s the main topic of discussion.
The golazo. The wonder-strike. The Soldier Field shot right through Mexico’s hearts.
Feilhaber was a green 22-year-old four summers ago, playing in his first major tournament with the senior US national team. And he delivered nothing less than the winning goal at the 2007 CONCACAF Gold Cup. In the 73rd minute of the final, the midfielder ripped a stunner of a right-footed volley that left Oswaldo Sánchez flat-footed, sending the US to the 2009 Confederations Cup.
In the history of important goals for the US, it ranks near the top — right up there with Paul Caligiuri’s “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” in Port of Spain in 1989, Brian McBride's opener vs. Mexico in Jeonju in 2002 and Landon Donovan’s winner on Algeria last summer in Pretoria.
But more than that, it marked the arrival of a new generation of talent for the US, a group of players personally escorted into the ranks by Bob Bradley who have gone on to play an integral part of the fabric of the team. That continued through that magical Confederations Cup run, into the 2010 World Cup and, now, into this summer’s Gold Cup.
Feilhaber was one of a handful of Bob’s Kids, guys on whom the US gaffer has leaned during his twin terms at the helm of the national team that are now regulars in his first-team lineup. Michael Bradley. Maurice Edu. Jozy Altidore. Even the oft-maligned Ricardo Clark and Jonathan Bornstein. Several of those guys used the Gold Cup as a launching pad to national team careers, while some came immediately after that tournament.
But even Feilhaber will tell you, a good performance at a high-stakes tournament like this one augurs well for your future.
“In ’07, I was just starting my national-team career,” he told MLSsoccer.com last month, “and obviously the Gold Cup was a huge part as to why I was able to maintain my status on the national team and continue and grow with that. That was obviously a really big lift for me.”
Unfortunately for the US, Feilhaber will likely miss this go-around after spraining his ankle in club play last weekend. But in a way, it’s symbolic: A new Benny may get the chance to step forward and put an exclamation mark on this tournament.
It’s happened nearly every recent Gold Cup, where a young star leaves his imprint and cements his national-team career. Landon Donovan in '03, building off his dynamite World Cup and leading the tournament in scoring in a losing cause for the US. Oguchi Onyewu announcing his bruising presence in ’05, capped by a stoppage-time header to beat Honduras in the semis. Stuart Holden blistering with his pace in ’09, scoring two goals and adding four assists.
There’s a changing of the guard going on again in this year’s Gold Cup squad. Yes, the aging generation of Donovan, Onyewu, Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard and Carlos Bocanegra are still expected to be clutch. Feilhaber’s colleagues, now in their prime, are still the young nucleus of the squad. All of these veterans will be expected to carry the team, obviously.
Waiting in the wings on this roster is a trio of guys who may be sleepers to do something special: Tim Ream, Eric Lichaj and Juan Agudelo. They’ve got a combined 10 caps and an average age of 21. There may be guys on this particular squad around the same age with more caps. And there are older guys with similar or less experience on the senior team.
But if you’re looking for a new generation of talent who can cement their futures on the national team, start right here. The upside on all three of these guys is enormous, and even Feilhaber thinks they’re finding their niche.
“The more years you play with the national team, the more games you get and the more responsibility you have to guide the team and be a really influential player when you’re on the field,” he said. “I think the even younger guys who are stepping in now are doing a good job of kind of stepping in those roles when we need them.”
The big names will do their jobs. We know that. But it’s in those little moments where there are places for new blood to make us get out of our chairs and cheer.
All it takes is one split second of glory to cement your place in US national team history.
Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com. “The Throw-In” appears every Thursday.