On a U.S. team that depends on defense and work rate, Benny Feilhaber is the rare American who displays an inventiveness with the ball usually associated with players from Spain or Brazil. His 20-yard volley to defeat Mexico in the 2007 Gold Cup was one of the best U.S. goals of the decade, and his threaded pass that sent Eddie Johnson in on goal against Argentina was the lone U.S. highlight in the '07 Copa America. A deft little touch against Spain in last summer's Confederations Cup fooled Barcelona defender Gerard Pique, setting up the second goal in the U.S.'s monumental upset of the world's No. 1 team.
There were no such stirring moments from Feilhaber in a desultory 3--1 loss to Honduras last Saturday at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif.—his strengths were neutralized after a U.S. squad of mostly fringe players fighting for roster spots went down a man in the 18th minute. That doesn't lessen the likelihood that Feilhaber, 25, will be a key figure in this summer's World Cup in South Africa. "Benny has something you can't teach: a creativity, a feel for the game," says U.S. midfielder Robbie Rogers. "The way he gets out of little spaces and the flair he has adds so much."
But flair will only get you so far, a lesson Feilhaber learned during a rocky stretch after that Gold Cup wonderstrike. He had a disastrous season with Derby County in England, then tore his right meniscus in May 2008 playing for the U-23s and appeared to be out of the national team picture. U.S. coach Bob Bradley, however, threw him an unexpected lifeline last spring. "I went to see him play for √Örhus [in Denmark], and when he came on, you could see the good things," Bradley says. "There was still the quality in terms of his touch and his ability to be a little creative."
Feilhaber appeared in all five U.S. games at the 2009 Confederations Cup, starting two. Once viewed only as a central midfielder, he began seeing time at left wing for the U.S. and now starts there for √Örhus. "Playing [in the Confederations Cup] against the best players gave me a boost going into this season," Feilhaber says, "and I've gotten more comfortable on the left. I try to do the same things I did playing centrally, but at times it can be easier because there's more space."
Bradley tempers comments about Feilhaber's progress with remarks about what he has left to do. "In this latest stretch with √Örhus he has been more of a 90-minute guy, but he knows we still feel there can be more consistency," Bradley says. "He is being pushed. He is now more than just a player who can make a pass that someone else can't. We hope that will continue."
Says Feilhaber, "I've had some rough times, but I have a successful six months behind me." For the U.S. to make an impact in South Africa, his next six have to be just as good.
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Robbie Findley, Conor Casey and Jeff Cunningham did nothing in the January camp or last Saturday's loss to seize the starting forward spot vacated by the injured Charlie Davies, so don't be surprised if U.S. coach Bob Bradley turns to his midfielders to find another attacker. Clint Dempsey, if healthy, is likeliest to move up top next to Jozy Altidore, but Landon Donovan or Michael Bradley could also slide into an attacking midfield role in a 4-5-1 if Bradley gets comfortable with the defensive abilities of young midfielders such as Stuart Holden(below) and Maurice Edu, or if DaMarcus Beasley, a longtime Bradley favorite, continues his good form in Europe. All of which seems more likely than Findley, Casey or Cunningham earning a starting job.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH (FEILHABER)
FOOTSIE Feilhaber (5) adds a dose of creativity to a U.S. midfield that's usually straight-ahead in its approach.
HOWARD C. SMITH/ISIPHOTOS.COM (HOLDEN)