KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Heading into the midpoint of his first season with Sporting Kansas City, Benny Feilhaber is still in catch-up mode.
The veteran midfielder and his manager are both candid about that, and about the improvements that need to be made for Feilhaber to live up to expectations. But with 18 matches still to go between now and the end of the regular season – as well as group-stage play in the CONCACAF Champions League – both sides are taking a postive, patient approach.
“He has all the qualities, but he's still got to adapt and adjust to the way that we play,” manager Peter Vermes told MLSsoccer.com on Monday. “It takes a level of fitness. There's just a level there that you have to be able to play at, and a tempo you have to be able to play at. That's something that has to improve on him, but I knew that coming in. It's not something new, but it's something that has to get better.”
On its face, that sounds like an assessment of a promising rookie – not someone who played in the Premier League with Derby County, has 31 caps with the US national team and is on Jurgen Klinsmann's preliminary call-up roster for this summer's Gold Cup.
But it's a fair grade, Feilhaber said on Monday, especially given Sporting's high-pressing style.
“I know my fitness has always been one of my biggest issues, and it's something that I have to work hard on to make sure I'm at the top of my game,” he said. “When I'm not fit, my game really suffers. So I've got to make sure that part of my game is there, and work hard on it every single day in practice – and if need be, more.”
Feilhaber has appeared in 13 of Sporting's 16 matches, with 11 starts, and his three assists are already one more than he had in 2012 with New England. But he also hasn't started since a 1-1 away draw to D.C. United on May 19, has gone the full 90 only once this year, and has found himself something of a social-media lightning rod for fans unhappy with Sporting's 6-5-5 record, their elimination from the US Open Cup and their fourth-place spot on the Eastern Conference table.
He's disappointed as well, but is taking the long view on both his own season and his club's.
“I started off well, kind of building up every game, and our team was doing well at the beginning of the season,” he said. “Then we kind of hit a speed bump for a little bit, but that's to be expected. It's a 34-game season. It's over eight months. We want to be going on all engines, and I want to go on all engines myself come playoff time.”
And while Feilhaber was left out of the 18 for last Saturday's 2-2 draw at FC Dallas, Vermes said that was because of left back Seth Sinovic's hamstring tweak, a sign of Feilhaber's being officially out of favor.
“With Seth being out, I needed another more defensive player,” he said. “That's why. It's always week to week, depending on how I see things. Don't read anything into it either way. I make [the 18] each week based on who we're playing and who's available.”
Despite Feilhaber's subpar 2012 season with the Revolution, the offseason trade for him was a high-profile move – especially with Roger Espinoza departed for Wigan Athletic after blossoming into a midfield star.
If that created unrealistic expectations in the fan base, Vermes said, it didn't do the same for him.
“I can't speak for everyone else, but I know what my expectations are,” he said. “I'm willing to give players time, as long as they're moving towards the goal. And I think that he's really trying, and I'm willing to work with him and make sure that he gets there.”
Steve Brisendine covers Sporting Kansas City for MLSsoccer.com.