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.

MLS Three Things: RBNY beats Atlanta, is a special club right now

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At this point, Jesse Marsch could take the USMNT job, Tyler Adams could bolt for the Bundesliga, and we’d still have to select the New York Red Bulls to finish with a home playoff game.

[ MORE: Willian’s shot at Conte ]

That’s how well run RBNY is these days, which is to take nothing away from their coach and 19-year-old star, but considering they navigated a solid CONCACAF Champions League run en route to this start… well…. wow.

On a night when Luis Robles’ ironman streak ended, Kaku recorded two assists, and Ezequiel Barco bagged his second goal in three matches, they don’t even meet the requirements of our three things.

Form giants deliver more goals

Marsch’s men have been shutout once this season, and most multiple goals in four-consecutive wins. Three of those four wins have come on the road, at LA, Colorado, and now Atlanta.

RBNY has the best points-per-game in Major League Soccer, has scored the joint-most goals despite playing in the second-fewest games, and is allowing barely more than a goal-a-game.

Bet against ’em. We dare ya.

BWP delivers the goods

RBNY’s 33-year-old English star scored twice and won a penalty that Daniel Royer converted as he continued his assault on all future Red Bulls’ hopes of becoming the club’s leading scorer.

Bradley Wright-Phillips has almost 50 more goals than his nearest competitor, Juan Pablo Angel, and he makes headers look like child’s play.

Victory comes with a price

Kemar Lawrence was lost with a scary-looking face-plant on a clearance, and needed to be stretchered off the pitch. Hopefully it’s not long-term for the Jamaican back.

Willian “edits” Conte out of FA Cup champions photo

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Willian is not a fan of Antonio Conte.

Come to another conclusion if you like, but it’s hard to argue the Brazilian wizard’s feelings following his Instagram post after Chelsea beat Manchester United in the FA Cup Final.

[ MORE: Matic wants squad changes at Man Utd ]

Willian covered his manager in trophies following the win, and it’d be a stretch to call that a tribute to the Italian’s tactical brilliance.

The player recorded seven goals and six assists despite playing less than all but 12 Chelsea players in league play (12th place Alvaro Morata had 11 and 6).

We’re accepting alternative explanations for the since-deleted Instagram photo below:

Elis scores twice as Dynamo beat Fire 3-2

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BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. (AP) Alberth Elis scored two second-half goals to help the Houston Dynamo beat the Chicago Fire 3-2 on Sunday for their first road win of the season.

Elis, on a one-on-one breakaway, cut back to evade defender Johan Kappelhof and ripped a right-footer from the center of the box into the back of the net to give Houston (4-3-3) a 3-2 lead in the 74th minute.

[ MORE: Man Utd youngster gets USMNT call-up ]

The Dynamo’s Romell Quioto opened the scoring in the fourth, running onto a long through ball from Tomas Martinez and rolling the finish past sliding goalkeeper Richard Sanchez. Nemanja Nikolic tied it in the 14th minute and then fed Diego Campos for a goal about two minutes later. Elis converted from the spot to make it 2-2 early in the second half after Mauro Manotas drew a foul in the area conceded by Sanchez.

Chicago (3-6-2) has lost three of its last four games.

 

Inter Milan back in the Champions League after late heroics (video)

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It’s been more than a half-decade since Inter Milan qualified for the UEFA Champions League, an infamous run that ended on Sunday.

Inter scored twice in the final 13 minutes to beat fifth-place Lazio and advance into the Top Four via head-to-head record.

[ MORE: Man Utd youngster gets USMNT call-up ]

Lazio held 1-0 and 2-1 leads, but could not get the job done at home, collecting red cards in the 79th minute and stoppage time.

Uruguayan midfielder Matias Vecino scored his third goal of the season, redirecting a corner kick home in the 81st minute, as Inter clinched fourth place in Serie A.