As LAFC's Feilhaber returns to California, soccer landscape has changed

Benny Feilhaber - LAFC - standing in front of miniature stadium

LOS ANGELES -- Growing up in Rio De Janeiro, LAFC midfielder Benny Feilhaber was immersed in a city where soccer balls slapped against the city’s calçada sidewalks and skimmed the sands of its abundant beaches as commonly as the country’s iconic Havaianas flip-flops.

And it was in that city — where he threaded his first passes and scored his first goals on Rio’s ubiquitous futsal courts — when the seed for Feilhaber’s professional soccer ambition was planted.

“That doesn’t really exist in the US,” Feilhaber told Brian Dunseth on his Siriusxm FC show last week. “If it does, most kids are trying to go play football or basketball.”

By the time Feilhaber arrived in the United States, he was already a soccer-obsessed six-year-old. And as he adjusted to his new country, he began chiseling out a quintessentially Brazilian style into something entirely his own.

He first developed his game in the suburbs of New York and Houston before taking the field for Northwood High School in Irvine, Calif., when his family moved again to the Los Angeles area.

But it was at UCLA — where Feilhaber arrived as a walk-on — that the seeds planted in Rio began to fully sprout.

While rooming with future international teammate Jonathan Bornstein, Feilhaber scored two game winners in his freshman year and started 16 of 20 games as a sophomore. Then after a stellar performance at the US U-20 World Youth Championships, he left college to sign with Germany's Hamburg SV.

When Feilhaber came back from Europe six years later, his Major League Soccer career mirrored his family's westward migration years earlier. And after two years in New England and six in Kansas City, his move to LAFC has him back in the region where his soccer dreams began shifting toward reality. Not to mention where his parents remained.

“They were giving high fives when I told them I got traded,” Feilhaber said.

Although Feilhaber is living with his parents until he finds a place to settle his family, that may be where the comparisons to his high school years end. As far as soccer goes, LA is a different city now.

“Now you can find soccer 24/7,” LAFC Academy Director Todd Saldaña said last fall. “You just drive up and down the 110 freeway and turn off anywhere, there's a soccer game going on.”

And that's translated to a much more robust youth scene. Take LAFC's youth academy, which sent four players to the U-15 boys national team camp this week. That's in the club's second year of United States Soccer Development Academy eligibility. One of those players, Kevin Jimenez, was identified only a year ago during the LAFC Invitational, a lower-cost tournament the club subsidizes to identify talent that doesn’t have access to the pay-to-play circuit.

It's the kind of opportunity Feilhaber could've only dreamed of at a similar age in Southern California. And it's the kind of chance Feilhaber hopes his new club can help expand.

“Having a team in the downtown LA area where kids are playing every week, every day, whether its futsal courts or open grass fields,” Feilhaber said. “It’s going to be great for them to watch a team and certain players they admire every week, playing right in their backyards.”