A trequartista for our times: Why Benny Feilhaber needs to start for the US

The US national team didn’t exactly dazzle over the 180-plus minutes of friendly action in their just-completed January camp. Bruce Arena’s boys labored to score just one goal in two games vs. Serbia and Jamaica, a decidedly lukewarm return against modest opposition, even if they did post two clean sheets.

But it’s the nature of our beautiful game that a fleeting few seconds of inspired creation can sometimes tell us more than hours of drab toil on either side. And Benny Feilhaber, bless his heart, did exactly that in frosty Chattanooga on Friday night.

That particular clip is 30 seconds; we really only need the first 11, though. Watch Feilhaber (wearing the US No. 10 shirt) as he drifts just underneath the score bug in the upper-left-hand corner of the screen. Never the shy type, the Sporting KC star at first appeals for an early ball from left back Jorge Villafana but begins to backpedal when Villafana instead plays square to Dax McCarty.

Feilhaber takes two seemingly counterintuitive actions: He fades away from the ball instead of towards it, and moves into a relatively congested area near the top of the Jamaican penalty box.

All the while, his head is on a swivel. Feilhaber “checks his shoulder” no less than four times in an eight-second span, orienting himself in the close proximity of Reggae Boyz central midfielders Je-Vaughn Watson and Ewan Grandison and center back Damion Lowe, who steps out from the back line hesitantly when US striker Jordan Morris checks towards Feilhaber.

So when McCarty threads a sharp pass through traffic to Feilhaber’s feet, the latter has the information he needs despite his small pocket of space quickly collapsing as Watson races in. Feilhaber touches a cheeky first-time reverse flick to Morris, in the process spinning towards goal to receive the return pass from Morris. He freezes Jamaica left back Oniel Fisher with a small but glorious hesitation before slotting a simple ball that clears the path for Morris to tuck home a tidy finish at the near post.

I’ve just devoted more than 250 words to those 11 seconds. And, given the context of the USMNT’s attacking woes over the past six months or more, I’m probably still short-changing it. US Soccer’s website devoted an entire article to the play, with good reason.

Those shoulder checks I referenced above? This constant, 360-degree scanning is a key trait among top center mids, one dragged into the soccer mainstream by the great maestro Xavi Hernandez, the man Ray Hudson memorably branded “the cerebral dictator” at the heart of Spain and FC Barcelona’s superlative achievements in this century.

Barça once charted how often Xavi checked his shoulders in a La Liga match: The total was an astronomical 804 times. That proverbial “fly’s-eye vision” is a pivotal skill for carving order and tempo out of the sound and fury of a typical midfield battle in the modern game.

Sadly, this is not a trait we’ve come to expect from the typical American player. (The complicated reasons for that are a topic for another day.) The national team reached its greatest heights in the modern era with stout defending and razor-sharp counterattacks – which require plenty of careful planning and advanced thinking, but generally simplify an attacker’s task by exploiting open spaces and shorthanded defenses after an opponent’s loss of shape.

Feilhaber did his part in this system under Bob Bradley, often in a pinched-wide midfielder role that compromised his influence on matches but still found a space for his particular genius, which tended to wax and wan substantially over the full 90 minutes but was capable of rare magic like the 2007 Gold Cup final (4:57 mark):

He’s a different sort of player now, with well-honed instincts that simply don’t grow on trees in the US player pool. The Yanks should expect to encounter packed defenses in most of their remaining Hexagonal qualifiers, and few can pick those locks better than him.

He didn’t necessarily grab Friday’s game by the scruff of the neck; our own Greg Seltzer wrote that he “actually struggled in the first half” and gave him a rather modest 6.5 in his player ratings. But he won it just the same. This is what No. 10s do. They’re the reason “mercurial” is part of the sport’s vernacular, often drifting in and out of a game’s spotlight and occasionally driving their team’s fans to distraction. But they do things – see things – that others don’t.

Feilhaber’s solid January audition gave Arena a welcome selection headache in the middle, given that:

  • Sacha Kljestan has recently pulled off his own Lazarus act at international level
  • Darlington Nagbe looked rejuvenated after his fallout with Jurgen Klinsmann
  • Sebastian Lletget showed little to no learning curve with a 92 percent pass completion rate in his first two US matches
  • Jermaine Jones continues to defy Father Time at age 35.

We’ll all spend the next six weeks speculating on who’ll get Bruce’s call for the must-win meeting with Honduras in San Jose on March 24. Feilhaber is the one best-suited to keep Los Catrachos guessing, though.

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