Feilhaber reflects on his career and discusses transition to coaching
September 03, 2020
AS A PLAYER, Benny Feilhaber was on the field for some of the best and most iconic wins in this history of the United States national team. He scored the eventual winning goal in the memorable 2-1 win over Mexico in the final of the 2007 Gold Cup. He had an assist in the 2-0 win over Spain in the Confederations Cup. At the 2010 World Cup, was also on the field when the U.S. team made a stunning 2-2 comeback vs. Slovenia and then defeated Algeria the next game in dramatic fashion. He was also part of one of the biggest wins in the history of the U.S. U-20 team, a 1-0 win over Lionel Messi and Argentina.
At the club level, Feilhaber left UCLA to join Hamburg in the Bundesliga. He later made stops with Derby County in the Premier League and AGF Aarhus in Denmark. In 2011 he returned to the United States and played for New England, Sporting Kansas City, LAFC, Colorado, and then returned to Sporting KC for his final stop.
It was his time in Kansas City that most defined him at the club level where he won MLS Cup in 2013, then the U.S. Open Cup in 2015 and 2017 In 2015 he was named to the MLS Best XI.
Now 35, Feilhaber announced his retirement from playing earlier this year. But wanting to stay in involved in the sport, the Feilhaber announced that he had taken his first coaching job and will serve as an assistant to UCLA’s men’s team. It a storied college program and one which Feilhaber played from 2003-2004. It has produced some of the best players in the history of American soccer – including nine U.S. World Cup veterans: Carlos Bocanegra, Frankie Hedjuk, Brad Friedel, Eddie Lewis, Joe Max-Moore, Jonathan Bornstein, Jimmy Conrad, Cobi Jones, Paul Krumpe, Paul Caligiuri and Feilhaber.
ASN spoke with the Brazilian-born but Texas/New York-raised Feilhaber about his career and the transition to coaching.
BRIAN SCIARETTA FOR ASN: Congratulations on getting the UCLA assistant job. How did this come about and how long was this in the works?
FEILHABER: It was actually pretty quick with the turnaround. For me, it's been maybe six weeks. But it was not long with how it developed. Me and a few ex-UCLA guys that I still talk to, we were trying to set up a tournament that we could play in - like an over 35 tournament. We were talking with college people and ex-players. We were talking about that and one of the guys I played with at UCLA, he does some coaching and he spoke with Matt Taylor, the UCLA assistant. He mentioned it to us in passing that the other assistant coach was leaving and they were looking for a spot.
I thought I should reach out to Matt and let them know I'd be interested to kind of hear what's that all about and see if they'd be interested in me. I spoke with Matt and then [head coach] Ryan Jorden. I went out to California with my family on vacation and met up with them there. I slowly built up that process and here we are now.
ASN: Did you know that you always wanted to be a coach after you were finished player? Or was that a recent development?
FEILHABER: I think that during the majority of my playing career, I just enjoyed being a player. There are good times and bad times buy anyone who is truthful will tell you it is one of the best jobs you can have. Especially over the last two or four years, you start thinking about what am I going to do? How much longer can I play? What am I going to do after? In that regard, it's always been pretty easy for me because I love soccer so much. I've been connected with it my entire life. It's something I know I'll be connected to the remainder of my life. Whether it be coaching, scouting, working my way up to being a technical director/general manager, or maybe doing TV stuff, I knew I was going to be around the sport.
In terms of being a coach, that is all about opportunities. I wasn't sure what would come around, but I wanted to be prepared for whatever it was. Coaching is something I've done even as a player. You watch the game, you read the game, you know the stuff that not only you can do better, but also your team. Those are discussions that, as you get older, you can have with coaches. I've had some really good coaches with Peter Vermes and Bob Bradley where they spoke to me almost as a coach to a coach. I think I have that mentality a bit and I am hoping I can utilize that to help the younger kids now and help them develop.
ASN: From a coaching perspective, would you say that Bob Bradley, Peter Vermes, and Sigi Schmid were you biggest inspirations from a coaching perspective?
FEILHABER: Sigi is different for me because, unfortunately, I never got to be on a club team with him. The opportunity he gave me of a six-month period with the U-20 national team in 2004 until the World Cup in 2005, he gave me the opportunity and that was just massive. Not only did he trust me and give me that chance, he put me in a chance to succeed. He was a really good coach. He set up a team to beat the eventual champions Argentina with Lionel Messi on it. But Sigi allowed me to fulfill my dream and kind of become a pro.
In terms of Bob and Peter, they're the two best coaches I've ever had - both in terms of getting the best out of and helping me see things I haven't seen before. They're very different coaches but they both helped me get to another level. Bob, of course, with the national team got me playing a different brand of playing and with motivation too. He put me in really good spots to succeed, like the World Cup, the Gold Cup, and the Confederations Cup. He was a really good coach for the national team and he was even better for me with LAFC for the year I was there.
With Peter, I came to Sporting Kansas City in 2013 as a guy who had potential but who had lost a little bit of his luster. Peter saw something in me and he was an assistant with that U-20 team under Sigi. He brought me in and helped me find a different gear I hadn't utilized before. I saw the importance of the transitional moments in the game, the defending aspecits of the game, putting myself in good positions, to attack with pace and create once we win the ball. He put me at a different level and those years in Kansas City were really important to me.
ASN: Speaking of the U-20 World Cup. That was one of the biggest wins in that team's history. You played well against Messi in that game.
FEILHABER: I'd love it if people remember it that way. But I remember thinking after that game that Messi was going to be the best player in the world. He was a different class of all the players on the field that day. But as a team, we got the better of them that day. But they never lost again in that tournament.
ASN: How are you doing with your coaching licensing?
FEILHABER: I am currently in the "B" license courses and I started it earlier this year. It got delayed with COVID but at the end of this year, I'll have the "B" license.
ASN: What's it like to return to UCLA?
FEILHABER: I think the coolest thing is that there is a job to be done. UCLA had always been at the top of the food chain in terms of producing professional players. I think the last 4-5 years hasn't been up to the level I think a lot of alumni wouldn't expect. When I went to school there, our soccer team was #1 in the country my freshman year. We would we the conference pretty regularly. But things have changed. When Jorge, there was up and down years. Then with the scandal, there was a big task at hand for Ryan in terms of getting recruits again. UCLA used to have the number one recruiting class almost every year. That was a big task for Ryan and then rebuild it to where we all want it to be. I come into the job feeling like that is what I want to. It's not that owe anything to anybody but a lot of the coaching staff and players are there to bring it back to where it used to be.
The coolest thing about taking this assistant job was the alumni reaching out to me on twitter. Guys who were seniors when I was a freshman, and saying "it's great to see you there" and "there is nobody better for the job." It's cool to see those guys respect you and for all you've done in the sport, help to bring it back to where we all hope for it to be.
ASN: How do you feel about the current state of the college game as a pathway to the professionals? There are still good players coming out of college but more and more, top young American players are bypassing it to sign homegrown MLS deals or deals in Europe. Does it still have a role in this process?
FEILHABER: It's tough for me to answer that right now. I will get more information on that being there and seeing the kids everyday and understanding the level of college soccer. I'll be honest, when you've played 15 years with six in Europe and then back here in MLS and then with the decline of the number of players from college who make a big splash in MLS, it becomes a bit more difficult to follow. The more I get immersed in it, the more I'll see where the talent is and what kind of players can make a difference in the next level.
There is no doubt there has been some kind of decline because when I was there, that's where you got your professional players. Everyone went to college. There were no academies. There is something now competing with college in the academies of each professional team. There is no doubt there has been some kind of decline in the top-level talent that used to be in college soccer but I still think there is a place for it
I don't know what the future will bring but I played with Tristan Blackmon a few years ago when I was at LAFC and I think he's not only going to be a solid player in MLS but I think he's one of the better younger players in MLS coming through. He went to college [at Pacific] for four years. There are guys you can pick and choose who have become very good professionals but also potentially stars in the league. There is a place for college soccer to continue to bring players potentially through the path to be good professional players in MLS and maybe even Europe.
ASN: As someone who paid his dues to the USMNT, how excited are you for the current young generation with a core that is both U-23 eligible and has played or will play in the Champions League? Are you “glass half-full” type of guy?
FEILHABER: I am a glass is legitimately half-full guy. It's not empty and it's not full. There are a lot of really talented players in the United States right now. As a fan you can be excited but I hate being excited over potential. That's the thing. I had a conversation with somebody yesterday and he was looking at the U-20 team I was on. There are so many guys who became really good professionals that didn't start on that team. Then there are a bunch of guys on that team who started who no one knows who they are anymore. It's so hard to say when you're young.
Of course, I am not saying this about Christian Pulisic or Weston McKennie but I will say about Reyna - he's still young. He still has to prove he can do it every week. What level? We haven't even seen him on the national team yet. As much as we can see the potential and that there is quality there, there is also the lineage with his dad. You would expect for him to become a real quality player but I hate just saying "I am so excited about the team" because we haven't even seen anything yet. I tend to kind of reserve my opinion a bit until you see more games. There is that potential and yes you have some players playing at a really high level right now. I don't remember the last time there are that many offensive players playing at this high caliber. The closest we probably got was Clint at Tottenham, Jozy at Villarreal.
Weston McKennie is going to Juventus. Christian Pulisic over the last four months has been one of the best players on a top-four team in the Prem. So, there is a lot of positives about where people are playing and the effect they are having on their team. I hope that can translate to the national team but I want to reserve judgment until we see a more consistent performance from the national team because we haven't seen a game in.. who knows how long?
ASN: You spent a lot of years in MLS. When you left the league this year, what was your impression of it compared with when you arrived and what you saw around the world playing the game?
FEILHABER: The league has definitely improved. It's improving every year. In terms of talent, it is improving. From the time I went pro in Europe compared with when I came back and compared with here it is now, it is almost not comparable to back then.
In terms with leagues in Europe, it is right up there. It's not with the Premier League, the Bundesliga, Ligue 1, Serie A, or La Liga, but in terms of that second tier, it's right there. It can be comparable to Holland or Portugal or Denmark. I do think that it has come a long way and you can see that in the talent that is being brought in. You have guys who are making big money and are playing with their national teams - whether it be Mexico or European national teams. There are a lot more quality players and that has improved.
In terms of American talent in the league, that has improved but because of the improvement of the international talent, it makes it harder for the Americans to get those minutes. They have to really fight for it but, in the end, that is a good thing.
ASN: In terms of coaching goals, do you like the youth level or are you gearing to the first-team levels? Or is that to be determined?
FEILHABER: That is to be determined. What I can tell you is that the things that were really appealing to me in taking this job were two big things: the first is in helping these players who are on the cusp of becoming professionals - whether it be soccer or in life becuase were developing people, not just players. If their goal is to be a professional player, you are right there with them to help them try to get to that point. The second is results. I really do want to help the team in any way I can. I want the results to be there. I want UCLA to be back to where they want to be. I want people to see UCLA as that soccer school that wins and has the best players and coaches.
In terms of where I see myself as coach in the future, I am not sure where. I don't really know. It's about being prepared for the opportunities that come your way. Could I see myself coaching in MLS one day? 100%. Could I see myself staying in college? 100%. In terms of youth soccer, I can see myself doing that too but I think I do have a little bit of an ambition to coach guys who can kind of understand the more difficult tactics. So maybe it would be tough for me to adjust to the youth level. But I have kids, and when kids grow up, you tend to want to help them as a coach or a parent. So all of those things are possibilities for me. I can see myself leaning to the later side of development in college or the pro. That is where my true love lies.