MLS 2017 oral history, Part 1: Benny Feilhaber tries to escape past disappointments and return to USMNT

(Sporting News)

Throughout the 2017 Major League Soccer season, FC Yahoo had regular conversations with four well-known players. They spoke candidly about the swings of the long and grueling season and their hopes as the playoffs crept ever nearer. In the first installment, Benny Feilhaber talks us through his year, which would begin with hope of an MLS Cup title and a resurrected U.S. national team career, crescendo with a U.S. Open Cup triumph, and end in a haze of disappointment.

Date: March 3
Record: 0-0-0, tied for first in the Western Conference

Benny Feilhaber: “Every year you say you want to a trophy and you want to win MLS Cup. But I think this year that’s more a reality than maybe in the last three seasons. The last three years we’ve had some good teams, but we’ve had some weaknesses as well. I think in this offseason, we really went after trying to fix those weaknesses. And I think we have, for the most part. Our goal is very, very simple this year. Not only to be competitive and be very consistent in the regular season, but it’s to put ourselves in a much better spot in the playoffs. To at least have a home game, so in the top three or four in our conference.”

In 2014, 2015 and 2016, SKC was eliminated in the Knockout Round, playing each game on the road. And it was eliminated on a late goal, on penalties, and on a dubious goal, respectively. And in the latter game, Sporting’s would-be winner was probably wrongly disallowed.

Feilhaber: “In both 2015 and 2016, we had moments where we took our foot off the gas, for whatever reason, and that cost us a higher seed going into the playoffs. It’s pretty easy to get over once the season’s over. For me, anyway, I’m not thinking about it every day anymore. But we know, these last two or three years, how close we were to making a run. Last year, I told a buddy that whoever won between us and Seattle would win MLS Cup. I had a feeling.

“In terms of individual goals, I’ve waited a long time to get called back into the national team. It’s something that, to be honest, I thought it was a door that closed on my career. And now that it’s reopened, it’s something that I want to be very much back a part of. I hope I get called in for every single game there is. I hope I play and I hope I’m playing in every game in my club team as well.”

Date: May 4
Record: 5-1-3, first in the Western Conference

Feilhaber: “We’re all very aware of how early it is. And how things can change quickly in MLS. You can have a really good stint and then potentially go into a really bad stint. Those are the things you have to avoid throughout the season.”

The mood in the locker room has been upbeat.

Feilhaber: “For the most part, you’d like to try to keep it constant. And I think we do a good job of that. Having said that, there’s always more jokes going around, more smiling faces. People are excited to come to training when you’re winning. You’re excited that every game day is coming up. When you’re losing, it’s tough. You’re in a lull and you don’t know how to break the trend. There’s a little bit more apprehension in practice. Between the coaches and the players, there’s a little more of an annoying feeling where you’re not sure where you’re at. It’s a little bit walking on eggshells. That’s why it’s so difficult to get out of.”

Sporting has held six clean sheets in nine games, giving up just a third of a goal per game.

Feilhaber: “More so than anything, I think we’ve started the same back six every single game. So there’s a big factor of continuity in that sense. You can see it with the stats and how few goals we’ve give up. It wouldn’t shock me if we’re the team at the end of the road that’s given up the least goals in the entire league because that’s something that we do focus on and really work on a lot.

“We feel like it’s one of the parts of our game that we can really have consistency throughout the season. There’s going to be times when you’re can’t score goals, when for whatever reason the ball is not falling in the back of the net and you’ve got to grind some games.”

Feilhaber has been playing well, but another national team call-up has been elusive.

“It’s tough. For my perspective, I think I’m playing better than I was a month ago. This is the point of the season that I feel I’m playing my best soccer, so it’s always frustrating not to be called in. It’s about playing well, not worrying about what’s happened in past call-ups and keeping your head in the right place and seeing what comes of it. It’s still a big goal of mine.”

Date: Aug. 14
Record: 9-5-10, in a three-way tie for first place in the Western Conference (after spending 11 of the last 12 weeks in first place alone)

Kansas City’s nine-game unbeaten run was snapped by Seattle on Aug. 12. But of those nine games, Sporting had tied seven, scoring just six goals in those games.

Feilhaber: “Our team’s always been more one that’s relied on the strength of the defense, the strength of the team mentality and how it plays as a group. And even though this year I think we’ve been much more possession-oriented and controlled the tempo of most of the games that we play in, we’re not a team that gets five, six guys in the box and scores three or four goals a game. We know there’s going to be moments in the season where we’re not scoring as many goals as we’d like.

“We talk about where we are right now, we feel pretty good. We’re tied for first in the Western Conference right now with 10 games to go. We’re in the final of the U.S. Open Cup.”

Feilhaber doesn’t feel like Sporting will befall the same fate as in recent seasons, fading late and getting bounced in the knockout round.

Feilhaber: “I don’t see it as a monkey on our back. Because I feel like we weren’t necessarily as well-prepared going into that final stretch as we are this year. I feel like we’re more of a complete team this year. It doesn’t feel like something bad is going to happen. I could kind of sense some of that stuff in the last few years. I feel this is a different year for us and a different team. I hope I’m right.”

Benny Feilhaber, right, walks off the field after the U.S. lost to Trinidad and Tobago in October. (AP)

The summer is almost over, but Feilhaber didn’t get a look in World Cup Qualifiers or the off-year Gold Cup.

Feilhaber: “It’s always frustrating wanting to partake with the national team and wanting to help and not getting the opportunity. I’ll continue to be honest, that was always one of my goals. Do I still think there’s a possibility there? Yeah, I think so, but it’s much slimmer. Is it disappointing? No doubt about it. I thought it was a realistic goal of mine and it hasn’t happened. If that was the end of my national team career, I think I’ll look back and be pretty happy with it. Although it’s hard to be happy in the moment when you still want to be a part of it.”

Date: Sep. 22
Record: 10-6-11, tied for second in the Western Conference

Sporting has won the U.S. Open Cup for a second time in three years and a third in six.

Feilhaber: “Obviously, the primary mission is always MLS Cup. I do think our team and I view Open Cup a little bit differently. I see it as a secondary goal – that we have to win a trophy. We take it very seriously and some teams don’t. MLS Cup is what we’re fighting to get back to. Winning Open Cup is fantastic and definitely was a goal of ours. And now we continue our other quest, our main quest – to finish the regular season in the right situation. Hopefully in the top-two in the West so we can get a bye, or at the very least third or fourth so we can play at home.

“This year, there’s no doubt that the East has been stronger. MLS, in general, is cyclical. It’s good for us. We can potentially finish in one of those top-two spots.”

Date: Oct. 31
Record: 12-9-13, fifth place in the Western Conference

Failing to win any of its last five games, and losing three, Kansas City tumbled to fifth place. That meant another knockout round. And another away game. In Houston, Sporting lost to the Dynamo 1-0 in extra time, ending a fourth straight season at this stage.

Feilhaber: “The game was a bad game in general. From my perspective, I feel that we really lost our season in the last five games of the regular season, as opposed to on that night in Houston. There were a lot of upsetting factors in how the season ended. If you look at the season as a whole, I think most people would say that at everyone’s best, our team was definitely one of the top-three teams in the West. We had a good chance of getting to the Final if we’d come into the playoffs in the right way, playing at home, or potentially getting a first round bye. And that was all easily in our grasp until the last month.

“The first game of this bad run was Vancouver at home [a 1-0 loss on Sep. 30]. If you asked me before that game, I would have said, ‘100 percent we’re going to at least get top-four and a very good chance we get at least top-two.’ If anybody would have bet me we’d come fifth or sixth, I would have taken any bet anyone would have given me. …”

“We definitely got a little bit unlucky. But I think our team, as a whole, when we’re not at our best, we’re not opportunistic in front of goal. We can out-possess the other team almost any game, whether it’s home or away. We can defend well. But if you’re not able to get your goals when you’re supposed to get your goals, it puts a lot of pressure on the team defensively and if you give up one goal you’re in a really bad spot. That’s what happened.”

Is the window closing on Sporting’s veteran core?

“All of us know that we’re getting older. I think that we all believe that we have enough in our tanks to keep playing together a couple more years. The question is, will we have that opportunity? You never know.”

Meanwhile, Feilhaber finally got back into the national team, and onto the field, only to witness its shocking elimination from World Cup qualifying in a 2-1 loss in Trinidad and Tobago.

“It’s really tough to think too much about it, because outside of the 10 minutes I played in the last game I didn’t get a chance to really be part of the group and try to help qualify for the World Cup. It’s such a weird feeling because you were there when it actually happened but you were hardly there for the entire run. It’s one of those where I almost wish I didn’t care about soccer as much as I do. Because when you lose games you’re so disappointed and it ruins your day and your week. It was almost like a little battle within myself to try to forget about it. I had 10 minutes to try to do something, maybe score or create a goal to help us get into the World Cup. Obviously, in the bigger scheme of things, that’s not a lot of opportunity. That’s obviously something that sticks with me, probably for the rest of my life.”

Is Feilhaber happy with how 2017 went?

“Obviously, I have to be. We won a trophy, and winning a championship is obviously the greatest feeling you can get in sports. You have to kind of look back on it say, ‘If you were asked if you could win a championship and lose in the playoffs, would you?’ I think most people would say yes, but with how our season has gone the last four years it’s tough to really enjoy what we feel right now. To lose this year in a way that we’d for so long stressed not losing is more than disappointing.”

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.