KANSAS CITY, Kan. – This was what Benny Feilhaber imagined for himself when he came to Sporting Kansas City this past offseason: coming up big in a crucial game, in front of the largest crowd ever at Sporting Park.
When Feilhaber took some time adjusting to Sporting's system and fitness requirements early in the season, some wondered if manager and technical director Peter Vermes had erred in making a trade to bring the veteran midfielder over from New England.
But with his play in Saturday night's decisive second leg of the Eastern Conference Finals, including a spot-on assist on Dom Dwyer's game-winner in a 2-1 victory over the Houston Dynamo, Feilhaber finally put an end to that talk.
“It's satisfying to play with these guys,” he told reporters after the match. “Peter put a lot of faith in me, bringing me in here, and it's about paying that faith back and really combining with these guys and playing with this team.”
He did that with solid end-to-end play on Saturday – finding space in the attacking third, tracking back on defense for timely takeaways, and combining with Graham Zusi to dominate the middle of the park in the absence of Houston's injured linchpin Ricardo Clark.
“I told him after the game, I said to him that that was why we brought him here,” Vermes said in the postmatch news conference. “His ability to open up a defense is exactly what we were looking for.”
Clark was injured two weeks ago, when the two teams battled to a scoreless draw in the opening leg in Houston. Without him on the pitch, Feilhaber and Zusi ran riot through the middle third – often at the expense of the Dynamo's Warren Creavalle.
Zusi had a lot to do with that, Feilhaber said.
“I felt last game when Rico got injured that it opened up some spaces for us,” he said. “I knew there were going to be some spaces, an extraordinary amount of space. Creavalle does well, but I think Crevaille plays better with Rico. So there's going to be some spaces, and we found some, and it's easy to play with Zus.
"Zus is a guy that not only has all the technical ability in the world, but he's running the entire game and opening up space for everybody else. So it's huge for us to have a player like that in our midfield.”
Steve Brisendine covers Sporting Kansas City for MLSsoccer.com.