Benny Feilhaber eager to seize his chance with U.S. in must-win qualifiers
SANFORD, Florida -- Two days into camp with the U.S. national team, Benny Feilhaber can still barely believe he's here.
While Feilhaber has been called into a few January camps in recent years, the Sporting Kansas City midfielder estimates that it has been over six years since he was last called into a camp that didn't fall in the middle of the MLS offseason. His last appearance in a match outside of a January camp came in a friendly against Poland on Oct. 12, 2010.
Feilhaber said he first got word a few weeks ago that he was on the preliminary roster but didn't think anything would come of it. Then he got word last week that he would actually be called in.
"For me, a real shock to be here, to be honest," he said after Tuesday's training session. "I didn't expect to get this call, but I'm here to do whatever I can for the team and help us qualify. It's an exciting time."
It's also a tense time for the U.S. side. The Americans are tied for fourth place with Honduras in the final round of World Cup qualifying and face third-place Panama at Orlando City Stadium on Friday. That match is essentially a must-win game, followed by a similarly important clash in Trinidad & Tobago four days later. Finish third in the group and the U.S. automatically qualifies. Finish fourth and the U.S. will face either Syria or Australia in a playoff.
But Feilhaber and his U.S. teammates are trying to focus on the task in front of them, which includes finding a way to kick-start a U.S. attack that has struggled to score goals of late. That's where Feilhaber comes in: He remains one of the most creative passers in the U.S. player pool.
"I'm just trying to do the things that are my strengths, and that's creating opportunities for the strikers, our wingers, trying to combine with the midfield, open up space," he said. "And trying to get into the attack as well. So if I'm called upon, those are the things I'm trying to do. At this point, it's really anything that can help to get three points is what's important."
U.S. coach Bruce Arena called Feilhaber in for January's camp and he assisted on the lone goal in a 1-0 win over Jamaica. Arena then looked elsewhere for midfield options but never completely wrote Feilhaber off. So why go to him again now?
"Just watching him play, and the kind of form he's in and the kind of qualities he continues to have, and thinking that in a game there may be situations where we can use his skills," said the U.S. manager.
As for Feilhaber, he never lost faith in his ability even as he pushed through what looked to be a down season with Kansas City. In 28 matches, he has five goals but just three assists, this after reaching double digits in the latter category the previous two seasons.
"I've always believed in what I can bring," he said. "When I did come in regularly for the national team, I always felt a great sense of pride in playing here. I was extra motivated every time I was called in. It's nothing different for me. I know what the international game is like: I've got a little bit more experience, I'm a little bit older. That can be a good thing and a bad thing, but I feel confident that I can make a difference and help the team."
At this point for the U.S., every little bit helps.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.