The Call Up

Sporting KC II's Benny Feilhaber: MLS NEXT Pro provides "real opportunities" on pro pathway

It’s a brand-new chapter for Benny Feilhaber in a brand-new league as the Sporting Kansas City legend embarks on his head coaching debut Sunday when Sporting KC II encounter Colorado Rapids 2 on opening weekend of MLS NEXT Pro's inaugural season.

Feilhaber, who has another Sporting KC icon in Ike Opara as an assistant coach, joined co-hosts Jillian Sakovits and Susannah Collins on The Call Up to discuss what the league means for up-and-coming players.

“Now we’re offering real opportunities for players along the pathway through our academy, young players that maybe aren’t quite good enough to play in MLS, we’re giving them games,” Feilhaber said. “We’re giving them games against real competition in a real league that matters. Guys will have the opportunity to showcase themselves and continue to develop.”

It also provides an opportunity to former players like Feilhaber, who retired from a decorated playing career after the 2019 MLS season.

“I think that, as we continue to have more and more players join the coaching ranks, we also are able to offer the things we’ve learned in the MLS game to try and help them to develop to become those next MLS players,” Feilhaber said. “I’m very excited about, not only by the job we’re doing, but what the league has created and the future of what this league looks like. It’s very exciting to be a part of the first year. I don’t know if anyone quite knows what to expect in terms of the competitive level.”

And because of the unknowns around the third-division league, it's difficult for Feilhaber to define success before a ball is kicked in MLS NEXT Pro outside of, he joked, the standard “make the playoffs” response.

“We really don’t know what to expect in terms of the league and the season as a whole and obviously our opponents,” Feilhaber said. “Every team is going to be different in how they handle it, whether it's tons of academy young kids that they push through or it's a lot of professional guys that aren’t quite good enough to play in MLS or in the USL. And then I think there’s a lot of teams in the middle, which is where I think we lie, in terms of getting some experienced veterans in there in the mix [and] helping academy guys and younger players continue to develop.”

The regular season contains 24 games, culminating on Sept. 18 with MLS NEXT Pro Decision Day. A total of eight teams, four from each conference, will qualify for the MLS NEXT Pro Playoffs.

For more from Feilhaber’s interview, which included Opara, check out the latest edition of The Call Up here.