Heaps says Feilhaber “one of the best” he’s seen

Playmaking midfielder to shoulder leadership role in his second MLS season

 

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Benny Feilhaber believes he has more to offer the New England Revolution in 2012.

It’s not to say Feilhaber didn’t perform up to par for the Revs last season. The 27-year-old U.S. National Team midfielder scored four goals and added a team-leading seven assists in 23 appearances after arriving via the Allocation Process in late April. Playing alongside Shalrie Joseph for the majority of the campaign, Feilhaber partnered the Revolution’s captain to form one of the strongest central midfield combos in the league.

But Feilhaber spent much of the season slightly unsettled as he adjusted to his new surroundings – a new city, new teammates and a new league. It was a feeling magnified because the move happened so rapidly for the California product, who discovered he’d be joining New England on a Wednesday morning and was in the club’s starting lineup on Saturday night.

It didn’t help that after just six appearances Feilhaber suffered a severely sprained right ankle and not only missed significant time with the Revs, but also a chance to represent the U.S. National Team at the 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup. By the time he found his comfort zone – both on and off the field – the Revs were struggling just to stay in the playoff race.

Chalk it up as a learning experience for Feilhaber, who finds himself in an entirely different situation this season. Familiarity is the key word for the World Cup veteran as he returns to a city, teammates and league he now knows very well.

“The adaptation period anyplace you go is going to take a while,” said Feilhaber. “It takes time to understand the ins and outs of the league, how tactically it’s played, how your team wants to play tactically. Those were all things I had to go through a process with last year. This year, it isn’t like that.

“Being with a team from the beginning of the season makes a huge difference,” he added. “Last year was kind of learn-as-you-go and this year it’s more getting better little by little and already having that base. It’s a big difference and it’s only going to help me, and hopefully our team, in general.”

Recent experience in the U.S. National Team’s annual January camp – his first call-up under head coach Jurgen Klinsmann – will also help Feilhaber as he aims to establish himself as the consistent catalyst for the Revolution’s attack. Early signs this preseason indicate Feilhaber could once again occupy a playmaking central midfield role alongside Joseph, with Feilhaber situated ahead of Joseph and tucked in behind the forwards.

New England head coach Jay Heaps watched Feilhaber’s introduction to the team from the broadcast booth last season and was thoroughly impressed with the player’s creativity and vision. Now Heaps wants to see Feilhaber build upon last year’s foundation and become one of the Revolution’s go-to guys in 2012.

“Benny is a player who at times, to be perfectly honest, is one of the best players I’ve seen,” Heaps said. “Now it’s a matter of making the players around him better and I’m going to ask him to be a leader this year. I want to see more put on his plate when the going gets tough. When we’re under duress, I want to see Benny respond and I want to see him carry his team.”

It’s a tall order for Feilhaber, but one which works in concert with Heaps’ desire to implement a possession-oriented, attack-minded playing style. Moving the ball out of the back through midfield and keeping the ball on the ground play directly into Feilhaber’s strengths, which are subsequently boosted by consistent touches.

While a possession-oriented approach was constantly preached in Revolution camp last season, it rarely translated onto the field as the Revs found their opponents dictating the pace of the game on many occasions. Feilhaber believes this season the Revs have the pieces in place to better put their possession-based tactics into practice.

“For me, it’s a huge positive when Jay’s mindset is to hold the ball, have that possession style of soccer and create our chances as opposed to last year when it was extremely direct,” said Feilhaber. “Obviously [former head coach Steve Nicol] had a different mindset where he wanted to get the ball up, get it to the outside guys and cross it in. In that sense, it makes it a little bit more difficult for me to get involved and get those creative passes in there when we’re being that direct.

“Hopefully [this new approach] will help me have a better season and our team in general have a better season.”