Take the long way home

Benny Feilhaber’s rollercoaster career has landed him happily in Major League Soccer

The following story was published in the Revolution’s “Match Day” program for the May 28 game against the LA Galaxy

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Benny Feilhaber is a 26-year-old World Cup veteran with an extensive European club career, not to mention a current home in the United States with the New England Revolution. He’s an Olympian, to boot, having represented the United States at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.

In short, the Brazilian-born playmaker has come to represent the personification of every young American soccer player’s dream.

But to say Feilhaber has experienced a few bumps in the road along the path to stardom would be a massive understatement. The journey has been anything but smooth and it’s taken equal doses of luck and determination to power through the adversity.

For starters, Feilhaber was never a soccer prodigy growing up in the New York City suburb of Scarsdale – where his family moved from his native Brazil when he was six years old – or Irvine, Calif., where he attended high school and played club soccer for the Irvine Strikers. Although a talented midfielder, Feilhaber drew little interest from the U.S. Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program during his teenage years and subsequently had limited scholarship opportunities when searching for colleges.

Eventually, Feilhaber decided to attend UCLA after then-head coach Tom Fitzgerald – who had communicated with Feilhaber via a string of e-mails – invited him to try out for the Bruins.

But only as a walk-on.

“There was nothing guaranteed,” said Feilhaber. “[Fitzgerald] basically told me he thought I was a decent player, to come out and train with the team and he’d let me know.

“So that’s what I ended up doing,” he continued. “I got into the school. I was kind of using soccer to get into college and do well – that was my initial thought coming out of high school. I made it into UCLA, which was my main goal, and then hopefully I’d make the team. If not, I’ll be a student, you know?”

Feilhaber didn’t only make the team; he excelled. After playing 16 games as a freshman in 2003, he appeared in every match as a sophomore, registering five goals and three assists as he helped UCLA to a 14-4-2 record and an appearance in the third round of the NCAA tournament.

It was in the midst of Feilhaber’s thriving college career that a stroke of luck changed his life forever.

Thomas Rongen had never given Feilhaber a look during his tenure as head coach of the United States Under-20 National Team, but a lucrative offer to take the reins of MLS expansion club Chivas USA meant Rongen vacated the post in 2004. Former UCLA head coach and longtime California resident Sigi Schmid stepped in to replace Rongen with the U20s and a door opened for Feilhaber.

Schmid called the burgeoning college star into camp with the Under-20 National Team in November 2004 – Feilhaber’s first experience in the National Team program – and six months later he was starting for the United States at the 2005 FIFA World Youth Championship.

Feilhaber shined on the international stage that summer and immediately drew interest from European clubs eager to acquire his services. In the span of six months he’d gone from quality college soccer player to sought-after American star.

With Germany calling in the form of Bundesliga side Hamburg SV, Feilhaber made the decision to leave school after two years and pursue a professional career in Europe.

“Players don’t get that opportunity very often and it’s not something you can just decide to do (whenever you want),” said Feilhaber. “It’s something that has to present itself. It did, and it was something that I couldn’t pass up. Had it not worked out in the end, I could’ve always come back and finished up school. That was my thought process.”

While Feilhaber never came back to finish his degree at UCLA, his time at Hamburg was far from an instant success story. After biding his time with the reserves throughout the 2005-06 campaign, the young American broke into the first team during his second season in Germany and slowly became a key piece of Hamburg’s roster.

Until a coaching change once again altered the course of his career.

“For the first six months (of my second year with Hamburg), I was basically a starter and I think I played about 12 games, playing in Champions League, playing in the Bundesliga and I gained a lot of experience that way,” said Feilhaber. “But our coach got fired at the break and the new coach who came in changed things up, and I wasn’t part of his plans.

“I think the most important thing, regardless of what level you’re playing at, is to play games and get experience,” he continued. “I got some of that exposure (at Hamburg), but maybe not enough of it.”

With his playing time limited and one eye toward a move away from Hamburg in the summer transfer window, Feilhaber began to focus on making the United States’ roster for the 2007 CONCACAF Gold Cup. He had made his full debut with the National Team in March 2007 and was considered an up-and-coming talent in the U.S. program.

Feilhaber made the Gold Cup roster. He also made an unmistakable impression with a highlight-reel goal to beat archrival Mexico in the tournament’s championship match, launching him to instant hero status within the American soccer scene.

Once again, Feilhaber was a wanted man in Europe.

“At the end of [the Gold Cup], the coach who hadn’t played me was obviously still at Hamburg, so it was a tough decision,” Feilhaber admitted. “I had one more year on my contract, I loved Hamburg and of course I’d love to have stayed there and played. But at that point in time, I couldn’t stay there and take the chance of not playing.”

So Feilhaber made the move to England, where he joined up with newly-promoted Derby County and manager Billy Davies for the 2007-08 English Premier League campaign. A blossoming 22-year-old American star playing in the Premier League, Feilhaber thought everything was coming together, admitting that moving to Derby “felt like the perfect move.”

Unfortunately, Feilhaber’s dream turned into a nightmare in more ways than one. Derby won just one match in the 38-game season and accumulated the lowest point total (11) in the English top flight since teams began being awarded three points for a victory. The Rams were officially relegated from the Premier League by March, almost two months before the season ended in mid-May.

Despite Derby’s struggles, Feilhaber was rarely given the chance to step on the field. Davies left the club in November and new manager Paul Jewell never found a place for Feilhaber in his plans.

“Billy always seemed pretty high on me and I think he was kind of building me into the team,” said Feilhaber. “I played more as a sub in the beginning and I think he was finally starting to get some confidence in me, and then he was gone.

“So the whole thought was that the coach wants me here and he’s going to play me,” Feilhaber recalled. “Even if the team doesn’t do well, at the very least I’m going to have one good full season under my belt in the [Premier League], which is the best league you can play in. It was another opportunity I felt I couldn’t pass up. It was the [Premier League]. But it didn’t pan out the way I thought it would.”

While Feilhaber was discouraged at the time, he’s able to look back on the experience now as a building block in his career.

“It was a really frustrating year for me,” he admitted. “Looking back on it now, definitely I can take things that I learned there. I don’t know if there are too many positives from that year, but there are things that I can take that I learned from that difficult experience to better myself as a person and a player.”

With life experience gained, Feilhaber moved on from his unsuccessful stint at Derby in search of a different kind of experience – playing experience. Knowing he needed to find a club where he could be a regular contributor, Feilhaber turned to Denmark, where he landed with AGF Aarhus in August 2008.

Feilhaber finally found a home at Aarhus, featuring 54 times and scoring a few crucial goals as he carved out a spot for himself during a three-season stint in Denmark from 2008-11. A few injuries – most notably cartilage damage which sidelined him for five months in late 2008 and early 2009 – and relegation to the second division for the 2010-11 campaign provided additional obstacles, but the hurdles seemed minor compared to what he’d overcome in previous years.

“I had a little bit of a struggle my first year with some injuries, but after that I settled down and for the most part played pretty regularly there,” Feilhaber said of his time with AGF. “That was very important for my career, especially at that age. I couldn’t keep doing what I did at Hamburg and Derby, playing 10 games a year.

“It was important for me at that point to get regular game time and that’s what I was able to do in Denmark,” he continued. “And it was a high enough level for me to keep developing as a player.”

Feilhaber developed so much as a player, in fact, that he featured three times for the U.S. National Team at the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa. With his star on the rise, Feilhaber eventually made a highly-publicized move back to the United States to join Major League Soccer, where he fell into the laps of the Revolution after both Chivas USA and the Philadelphia Union passed on his services in the Allocation Process.

Now settling into his new home in New England, Feilhaber hopes his progression continues in the right direction. And if there are a few snags along the way, it won’t be anything he can’t handle.

“The most important thing for me is to play and play well here, and help the team as much as I can,” said Feilhaber. “Now I’m in MLS, I’m back in the U.S. and I want to keep improving my football and try to keep improving MLS.”