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.

Giovinco strikes twice to lift Toronto FC to Canadian Championship (video)

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Sebastian Giovinco scored twice including in stoppage time as Toronto FC overcame Ballou Jean-Yves Tabla’s fantastic strike to win 2-1 in the second leg of the Canadian Championship at BMO Field on Tuesday.

TFC held the advantage after a 1-1 first leg in Montreal. The Reds advance to the CONCACAF Champions League.

Tabla, who just turned 18 in March, is an Ivorian-born Canadian youth international who now has four senior goals for the Impact.

Montreal veteran Patrice Bernier saw red in the 89th minute, putting the Impact’s chances behind the 8-ball.

[ MORE: USMNT Gold Cup questions ]

Toronto FC entered the match with a road goal advantage, which was undone in the quick flash of a left-foot, as Tabla dug a ball from underneath him and past a flying Clint Irwin to make it 2-1 on aggregate.

The goal was a double whammy for Toronto, which went to the break knowing it would need to score twice (or win in penalty kicks) to advance to the CONCACAF Champions League.

Yet TFC came back after a horrendous pass from Montreal, as Michael Bradley pinged a gorgeous diagonal ball to Sebastian Giovinco. The Atomic Ant recovered from a tough opening touch to bury his chance. 1-1.

And, oh yeah, watch this man work for his second…

Who is Kenny Saief, and other USMNT Gold Cup personnel questions

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Kenny Saief is an 23-year-old American left-sided player with UEFA Champions League experience.

So why do we know so little about the Miami-born man?

The answer is pretty straight-forward: Saief’s entire career has been under-the-radar. After coming up through a series of Israeli teams, he moved to KAA Gent in Belgium. None of those matches, even adding in his representing the full Israel national team twice, got a ton of play on American soil.

[ MORE: Saul scores stunner for Spain U-21s ]

So when Saief filed his one-time switch to represent the United States, paving the way for a USMNT call-up for this summer’s Gold Cup, even those of us who’d followed his career from afar had put a limited amount of actual observation on match footage.

So here’s the long-and-short:

  • Saief turns 24 in December.
  • He moved to Gent from Israeli second tier side Ramat haSharon in 2014.
  • Played a total of 35 minutes in friendlies versus Serbia and Croatia.
  • Saief has 20 total appearances between the Europa and Champions Leagues.
  • Posted a UCL assist versus Wolfsburg in the 2015-16 Round of 16.
  • Had goal, 2 assists in UEL this season, played 180 mins vs. Spurs.
  • Has 15 goals, 9 assists in 107 apps for Gent.

Saief should get an opportunity to make an impact for Bruce Arena’s USMNT, perhaps as soon as Saturday’s friendly against Ghana in East Hartford.

Who else stands a chance to gain the most from this tournament?

Joe Corona — The 26-year-old made his thirst-inducing name in American soccer circles by scoring a pair of goals in the 2013 Gold Cup, but has just 17 caps to his name. His call-up over veterans like Benny Feilhaber and Sacha Kljestan either shows how high he’s risen or how far those veterans have fallen.

Cristian Roldan — Seattle’s hard-nosed midfielder was playing college ball at Washington just three years ago, and it’s not crazy to think strong performances could boost him onto the radar of bigger clubs abroad (let alone make him a mainstay along Kellyn Acosta with the USMNT).

Dom Dwyer — If Roldan’s rise is surprising, Dwyer’s really is astounding. It’s easy to forget that the Sporting KC star forward was playing junior college soccer in 2010 before spending one season of Division I soccer with South Florida. Now he has 57 MLS goals and a look at becoming the clinical finisher the American side has wanted for some time.

Justin Morrow and Eric Lichaj — The 29- and 28-year-old fullbacks would love to prove their mettle is as good if not better than Jorge Villafana, the current front-runner to start at left back should the Yanks complete their revitalized run to the World Cup. Lichaj, a Nottingham Forest veteran, is also adept at right back.

This isn’t to say that Juan Agudelo and Kelyn Rowe won’t benefit from strong tournaments, but the names above have either been rescued from soccer’s scrap heap or at least Jurgen Klinsmann’s prison.

PODCAST: Bob Bradley talks MLS past, USMNT

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Scott Nicholls and Otis Earle welcomed Bob Bradley to their “Beyond The Pitch” podcast to discuss his time coaching the Chicago Fire, the Fire’s current squad, how MLS has evolved, the new generation of players coming into the USMNT and more.

Perhaps most interesting is Bradley talking about previous losses with stinging emotion that sounds like they happened yesterday, including the 2000 MLS Cup.

[ MORE: Latest Men In Blazers pod ]

Since being fired from Swansea City after less than 100 days, Bradley has been linked with the Norway national team gig as well as a return to Los Angeles. Keep up with the U.S. coach here, and check out the podcast here:

U.S. Open Cup preview: Which underdog has best odds?

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Every dog has its day, and the three lower-tier clubs remaining in the 2017 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup are hoping for a second.

Miami FC, Sacramento Republic, and FC Cincinnati enjoyed wins over Major League Soccer sides in the fourth round, and now get further MLS tests in this week’s fifth round.

[ MORE: Lampard linked with manager opening ]

Once FC Dallas and Colorado Rapids tangle on Tuesday, attention turns to the underdogs on Wednesday. Who has the best chance to advance?

  1. Miami FC vs. Atlanta United — Playing an MLS expansion side at Riccardo Silva Stadium will give Miami a bit of confidence, and this is also a side with some good experience in pressure spots. Whether it’s manager Alessandro Nesta or MLS vets Michel, Gabriel Farfan, and Michael Lahoud, MFC won’t shy away. Upset chance: Solid.
  2. FC Cincinnati vs. Chicago Fire — The visitors are having a heck of a season in MLS and don’t have a group which will be worried by a huge crowd, but there’s no debating that 25,000-plus in Southern Ohio give FCC more than a puncher’s chance. Upset chance: Improbable, but possible
  3. LA Galaxy vs. Sacramento Republic — If LA puts something close to its best side out there, Sacramento will struggle to stop its attack.  Upset chance: Long shot.

Elsewhere on Wednesday, New England hosts DC United, Philadelphia visits the Red Bulls, Seattle is off to San Jose, and Houston hosts Sporting KC.