Benny Feilhaber isn’t going to lie: Saturday’s return to Gillette Stadium is going to feel “a little funny.”
Not necessarily the game itself, which will pit him and his current Sporting Kansas City teammates against a number of his former New England Revolution teammates. That, he said, won’t make it different than any other game.
But arriving at the stadium he called home for the past two years as a guest is going to be another experience entirely.
“I’ve actually thought about all that,” Feilhaber told nesoccertoday.com via phone on Thursday. “It’ll be a little bit of a (different) feeling, I’m sure, not being in the Revs locker room and being in the away locker room and coming out of the other end (of the field).”
How Feilhaber went from friend to foe goes back to a conversation he had with Revolution head coach Jay Heaps and general manager Michael Burns last November.
At the conclusion of the team’s offseason training schedule, Heaps and Burns met with each player to go over his end-of-year contract option. During their discussion with the creative midfielder, Feilhaber knew that he hadn’t played up to his potential during his two seasons in Foxboro. There was no use in pretending otherwise.
He also knew that coming back for a third was going to be a longshot. Not after an unremarkable 2012 season (1 goal, 2 assists), and most certainly not at the salary ($446,000) he was commanding. So Feilhaber wasn’t surprised when he found out that his contract wasn’t going to be renewed.
“They told me they were either interested in trading me, trying to get something back for me, or trying to sign me to a lesser contract,” said Feilhaber. “I’d been there for two years and things hadn’t gone as well as either of us had liked and (I thought that) maybe the best decision was to try and get a trade that would help both the team and get me to a team where I could play to my full potential.”
In the weeks that followed, Feilhaber put together a shortlist of clubs he’d accept a deal to. He wouldn’t go just anywhere. He wanted to play in a system that allowed him to the freedom to showcase technical and creative skills.
On December 11th, the Revolution dealt Feilhaber to the team at the top of his list – Sporting Kansas City – for a pair of draft picks and allocation money. For Feilhaber, it couldn’t have played out any better.
“Based on the style of play, the way the organization was (set up) and knowing Peter Vermes from the under-20s, I thought for me (Kansas City) was the best fit,” Feilhaber said. ”So I was glad it worked out the way it did.”
Things didn’t work out exactly the way Feilhaber had hoped in New England, to say the least. After he ostensibly fell into the Revolution’s lap after Chivas USA – his hometown club – surprisingly declined to pick him up in the allocation order, many expected the talented midfielder to help resurrect the franchise’s fortunes.
But the Feilhaber who arrived in Spring 2011 wasn’t the same one who became a major part of the United States’ Confederations Cup run in 2009, as well as a key piece of the Nats’ 2010 World Cup campaign. Too often, he played angrily instead of artistically. Nevertheless, he plugged on, albeit with mixed results.
After an inconsistent 2011 campaign, the bottom fell out completely in 2012. His offensive production dipped significantly. Worse, Heaps deployed him as a defensive midfielder down the stretch, essentially putting a restrictor plate on Feilhaber’s finely-tuned engine.
Between the positional switches, the unmet expectations, and the club’s faltering form, Feilhaber admits that it was a frustrating two-year stretch. And he wasn’t helped by the negative opinions floating around Norfolk County.
“Some of the things I heard and read a lot about were people saying that I didn’t necessarily want to be there and that there was bad blood amongst the players and the coaches, I don’t think that was the case at all,” Feilhaber said. “I think our team was really unified last year and I think it showed. With the difficult season that we had, we still fought for each other on the field and of course it didn’t always work out.”
Despite the struggles, Feilhaber doesn’t blame anyone else but himself for his lack of success in Foxborough.
“I think that the reason why things didn’t work has to do with myself and whether it was tactically or the style that we played in New England, it just wasn’t a good fit,” Feilhaber said. “I think their style of play is one that doesn’t necessarily fit me extremely well.”
One style that certainly appears to fit Feilhaber well – at least on paper – is Kansas City’s high-RPM 4-3-3. Out on the left in a formation that rewards technical and creative skill, the Brazilian-born midfielder expects to find himself right at home once he gets into the groove of it.
“It takes a little while to get used to,” said Feilhaber, who now wears number 10 for K.C. ”But now I’m grasping it a little bit better and once everybody knows how to the play the way that we want to play, it’s really going to strengthen our defensive aspects, and offensively as well.”
There’s no doubt that Kansas City will be tested on both ends of the pitch this weekend. Without midfielder Graham Zusi and center back Matt Besler, both of whom were called up for World Cup Qualifying, Vermes’ team will need to figure out a way to keep the pressure New England.
Meanwhile, Feilhaber said that he’s spoken with a few of his former teammates leading up to Saturday’s clash, including Matt Reis, Ryan Guy, Bobby Shuttleworth and Chris Tierney, and is looking forward to playing against them.
“We’ll have a good time on the field,” Feilhaber said. ”We’ll be trying to kick each other’s butts. But it’ll be a lot of fun.”
Additionally, he feels that the Revolution are headed in the right direction under Heaps. He sees the talent they’ve accumulated and the foundation that’s in place, and believes that bright things lie ahead for his former team.
“I’m sure the team is going to look better this year,” Feilhaber said. ”I just hope they don’t look better on Saturday.”