The Benny Feilhaber Conundrum: Has Peter Vermes finally solved the puzzle?

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This postseason, we’ve seen it click for Benny Feilhaber in a way we’ve never seen before. We saw his talent for the U.S. Men’s National Team when he developed into a type of super-sub under Bob Bradley, but in Germany, the Premier League, and Denmark, he never had the same impact. When the Brazil-born midfielder came back to Major League Soccer with the New England Revolution in 2011, he had the talent to be an impact player, but it’s only now, one year and one stop later, that the 28-year-old’s found a platform to display his skills. Has Sporting Kansas City finally solved the Benny Feilhaber puzzle?

If so, they’ve only done so over the last three games. Opening the playoffs in New England, Kansas City left the former U.S. international on the bench in a 2-1 loss. It was only after Laurence Olum was lost to injury that Feilhaber got a chance, seizing his opportunity with a standout performance in Sporting’s 3-1 victory. His interception of Matt Reis’ 113th minute outlet and subsequent cross to Claudio Bieler created the round-winning goal, capping a night in which he created six scoring chances. Given the performance and the circumstances, it was Feilhaber’s best game since returning to Major League Soccer.

Like the rest of his team, Feilhaber went quiet two days later in Houston, but in the Eastern Conference final’s return leg, he replicated his Revolution performance. After a slow start, Feilhaber ended the night with six more created chances and an assist, his second half scoop for Dom Dwyer against creating the tie-sealing goal.

“Obviously those things get magnified,” Kansas City head coach Peter Vermes said of Feilhaber’s game-winning assists. “What I would say is that [in] the intensity of the matches, he’s risen with that as well, which is a good thing.”

But where has all this come from? Why the sudden turnaround? Has Feilhaber just stepped up when his team’s needed him most? Undoubtedly yes, but whether that’s coincidence or a function of something that’s changed since the middle of the season is the question.

Acquired this offseason for draft picks, Feilhaber played fewer minutes than he had in either of his seasons in New England, at points left out of Kansas City’s team entirely.While he provided valuable depth in August and September, starting eight consecutive games, Feilhaber only played 90 minutes once. In October, Feilhaber dressed four times but only saw 45 minutes of action, a usage pattern that persisted into the first game of the playoffs.

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Benny Feilhaber has been capped 40 times by the U.S. Men’s National Team and was a key part of the team that made the second round at South Africa 2010. Since moving to Major League Soccer, the now 28-year-old has 8 goals and 13 assists in 79 regular season games.

“I was down,“ Feilhaber said this week, talking about his struggles to maintain a consistent place in the team. “I felt like I was fighting for my job. And in some ways, I was losing.”

It was a huge turnaround from the beginning of the season when Feilhaber started the team’s first nine games, but that was back when expectations may have been greater. Now the pecking order seems clear. Graham Zusi is the clear focal point of this team – the man who orchestrates the attack. Instead of trying to find a way to help distribute the burden, Feilhaber is an obvious complementary piece. When he has room to create, it’s often because Zusi has opened it up. Feilhaber can worry about pulling the trigger, not shouldering the load.

“What he’s getting better at is not slowing the game down too much,” Vermes said of Feilhaber’s improvement. “Because we still want to go, and that’s a recognition thing.”

The irony there is Feilhaber’s value in the open, when he elects to “go.” When he gets out in the open — as he did so often with the national team; as he did for the deciding goal against Houston — Feilhaber can pick out a pass at an all-star level, often displaying that tantalizing skill which leaves you wondering when and how somebody will figure out how to get the most out of Benny Feilhaber.

For a man who was always at his best in spurts for the national team, this may be his best role. As he showed against New England and Houston, Feilhaber can be decisive in moments, but when asked to be the guy to control the minute-by-minute (as he was in New England), he often leaves you asking for more.

Now, filling a role that complements Zusi, Feilhaber is left to be his best without trying to be what he’s not. And by letting him do that, Peter Vermes may have solved the Benny Feilhaber conundrum.

Malta captain mutes goal celebration after journalist slain

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Malta captain Andre Schembri says the car bomb slaying of a Maltese investigative journalist prompted him not to exult after scoring an historic goal.

Schembri’s temporary equalizer for Cypriot club Apollon in a 3-1 loss to Italian side Atalanta in the Europa League on Thursday made him the first Maltese player to score in proper European competition – excluding qualifying.

[ PL PREVIEW: Saints vs. West Brom ]

But instead of pumping his fist or leaping in joy over the achievement, Schembri hung his head as teammates mobbed him.

Schembri wrote on Facebook on Friday, “Celebrating my goal didn’t feel right after what happened in Malta this week.”

Malta has been stunned since Monday by the slaying of Daphne Caruana Galizia, an anti-corruption reporter whose targets included Malta’s leading politicians.

“When they killed Daphne I wasn’t able to sleep for three nights,” Schembri told the ANSA news agency. “Malta is Europe, it’s not the third world. We need to be united when faced with grief like this, to say that we’re better than all of this.

“I love my country and with that goal it came naturally to me to think about a reporter’s freedom and the life of a mother of three children.”

Premier League Preview: Southampton vs. West Bromwich Albion

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  • West Bromwich Albion hope to choose from goalkeepers Ben Foster (back) and Boaz Myhill (hamstring) for the trip to St Mary’s. Hal Robson-Kanu (strain), James Morrison (calf) and Oliver Burke (hamstring) will all be absent for the Baggies.
  • Southampton are again without Jeremy Pied but have no other injury concerns.
  • Of all teams to have met in at least seven different Premier League campaigns, Southampton v West Brom has the lowest goals-per-match ratio in the competition (21 in 14 matches, 1.5 per match). 
  • Dusan Tadic has been directly involved in a goal in each of his last three PL appearances against the Baggies (one goal, two assists).

Two mid-table sides meet up in the south of England as Southampton hosts West Bromwich Albion at 13:20 p.m. Saturday afternoon. (Watch live on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Both teams are struggling for form heading into the match. West Brom is winless in its last seven games while Southampton has just one win in its last five, coughing up a chance to defeat Newcastle a week ago.

It’s a big boost for Southampton though that Manolo Gabbiadini is back on the scoresheet after scoring twice against Newcastle. It was Gabbiadini’s first goal since the second week of the Premier League season.

At the other end, West Brom have a worry with both of its top two goalkeepers, Ben Forster and Boaz Myhill. recovering from injuries.

What they’re saying

Southampton manager Manuel Pellegrino on his team: “The reaction of the team was really good, but we have to start from the beginning with this spirit. Sometimes you have to be patient, because at the beginning teams have more energy, they are fresher and they can press you better. I think we feel comfortable with the ball. If we are precise with the ball and with our tempo, we can create more problems – it doesn’t matter who we are playing. We know that West Brom are really strong physically, and dangerous from set plays and on the counter-attack. That’s something we’ve been working on this week. Every single week we are learning from our last few games, and I feel that my players are better prepared.”

West Bromwich manager Tony Pulis on facing Southampton: “They’re a good footballing team. Pellegrino has come in with his own ideas and the way he wants to play. From watching them in a couple of games away from St Mary’s they seem a little more relaxed. They look a little more uptight at home. But I’m sure they’ll become the team everyone knows they can be.”

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Prediction

West Bromwich doesn’t look closer to stopping its slide down the table, especially on the road. Even with Jay Rodriguez returning to his former club, Southampton should find the offense to put Tony Pulis and West Brom away. Southampton 2-1 West Bromwich Albion

Watch Live: West Ham vs. Brighton and Hove Albion

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West Ham and Brighton kick off the weekend’s Premier League action at the London Stadium on Friday afternoon. (Watch live, 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN an online via NBCSports.com).

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Both teams have just eight points from eight games, and are looking to move up in the table with a win.

Manuel Lanzini makes his second consecutive start, playing behind Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez in West Ham’s 4-2-3-1 formation. On the other side, Tomer Hemed sits his final match of his three-match suspension, with Glen Murray playing atop the 4-4-1-1 Brighton formation.

LINEUPS

West Ham United: Hart; Zabaleta, Fonte, Reid, Masuaku; Kouate, Obiang; Antonio, Lanzini, Arnautovic; Chicharito Hernandez. Subs: Adrian, Cresswell, Ogbonna, Byram, Ayew, Noble, Fernandes

Brighton and Hove Albion: Ryan; Bong, Duffy, Dunk, Saltor; Izquierdo, Propper, Stephens, Knockaert; Gross; Murray. Subs: Krul, Goldson, Suttner, Schelotto, Molumby, March, Brown.

Report: FIFA considering updating international rules

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Under current FIFA rules, once a player plays a senior international competitive match, they’re cap-tied permanently to that nation. But that rule could be changing.

That’s according to a report from Reuters, which quotes CONCACAF president Victor Montagliani that FIFA could look into updating some of its nationality laws. Montagliani is the head of FIFA’s stakeholders committee.

“There are so many issues that have popped up over the years because the world is changing, immigration is changing,” Montagliani said. “There are nationality issues that pop up all over the world, in Africa, there are issues in Asia and CONCACAF, so its a good time to have a look at this and see if there are solutions, without hurting the integrity of the game.”

Changing the rules would have a big impact on nations with diverse populations or nationalities with large diasporas.

The report states the Cape Verdean FA requested relaxing the rule of cap-tying a player after playing a competitive game, if that player drops out of the player pool and likely wouldn’t be called up again. Cape Verde relies on a lot of Portugal-based and raised players with Cape Verdean heritage.

A relaxation of the rules could have an affect on U.S. Men’s National Team players as well. In theory, if Kenny Saief decided he wanted to play for Israel again, under a relaxation of the rules, and some sort of proof that a new USMNT coach wouldn’t call him up, Israel could potentially use him. In addition, players such as Cristian Roldan or Jesse Gonzalez could in theory be lost should they fall down the depth chart and other countries they’re eligible for.