Benny Feilhaber and Robbie Findley will face off in Saturday’s MLS Cup final wearing different colors. Yet they’ll share a common bond as they vie for a trophy they surely never imagined competing for three years ago, when they were taking on the world together.
Careers take unexpected turns, and nothing is guaranteed in the life of a pro athlete. Neither Findley nor Feilhaber was a World Cup certainty when coach Bob Bradley’s roster started to take shape in 2009, but both were on the plane to Johannesburg the following summer, and both made an impact. Findley, a striker fresh off his run to the ’09 MLS title with Real Salt Lake, started three of the Americans’ four games. Feilhaber was Bradley’s South Africa super-sub. The Americans tallied four goals and yielded one with the Brazil-born, U.S-raised playmaker on the pitch but were outscored by the same margin with Feilhaber on the bench.
Both assumed their World Cup experience would catapult them to soccer’s next level.
“It’s not easy to make a World Cup squad. We got selected for a reason,” Findley said.
He opted not to re-sign with RSL at the end of 2010 and went to try his luck in England, where he joined second-tier Nottingham Forest. Feilhaber, relegated to the Danish second division with AGF Aarhus, awaited a transfer to one of Europe’s bigger leagues.
“Soccer is your career. In that sense, after you put up a good performance in the World Cup, you hope you can go to a club where you get a solid amount of money to make for your family. The other aspect is the ambition to play at the highest level possible,” Feilhaber said. “It didn’t work out the way I would’ve hoped for.”
It’s funny how things do work out. Feilhaber, 28, will help direct Sporting Kansas City’s attack in Saturday’s MLS showpiece. Findley, also 28, will lead the line for visiting RSL 11 months after returning from England. Both have experienced ups and downs in 2013, but both have been excellent in the playoffs. Findley, who scored three times in four postseason matches in ’09, recaptured his November form this year and had two goals and an assist as RSL hammered the Portland Timbers in the Western Conference finals.
Feilhaber had the helper on Claudio Bieler’s series-clinching goal in the Eastern semifinal triumph over the New England Revolution and then was outstanding in the winner-take-all showdown with the Houston Dynamo two weeks ago. He engineered SKC’s attack with aplomb and was instrumental in both goals, including Dom Dwyer’s spectacular game-winner.
Findley and Feilhaber’s resurgence is a testament not only to their perseverance, but to the environment at their clubs. Neither expected to be back in MLS, but now both are with teams for which they’re happy to play.
Feilhaber didn’t fit in with the Revolution after finally leaving Denmark in the spring of 2011, and he took a pay cut when he was traded to SKC last December. Sporting coach Peter Vermes wanted a player who could bring a little order to the attack – “We were the L.A. Lakers of old. We were running and gunning," the manager said -- and provide solutions in the attacking third. But Feilhaber would have to adapt to a team that played at a higher intensity than he was accustomed to.
“I got a little lucky that Kansas City took a chance on me,” Feilhaber said. “I knew Peter from the [U.S.] U-20s and knew what kind of coach he was, and whether or not I was happy throughout the year when he wasn’t playing me, he definitely improved my game. I’ve become a fitter player, a more two-way player, and I can do a little more on both sides, force myself to take chances a little more. I think that’s Peter putting that in my game. This team fits me pretty well, and obviously it’s been evident in the playoffs when everything’s come together.”
Findley knew he’d fit in at RSL, which had room up front after sending Fabian Espíndola to the New York Red Bulls. But there was frustration and fatigue to overcome [Findley had almost no offseason]. The Phoenix, Ariz. native dealt with injuries, benchings and five different coaches during his two years at Forest, which concluded with a short-term loan to fourth-tier Gillingham. His contract was canceled in January. He scored just six goals in England.
“I don’t look at it as a failure at all. My dream was to go over there and be a part of it and get that experience,” Findley said. “It can get crazy over there, and it was an eye-opener for me. I’d never experienced anything like that before. I stayed strong, did the things I needed to do in training and scored some goals here and there. I look at it as a learning experience and just take the positives out of it.”
At Forest, there was upheaval. At RSL, there’s stability.
“It’s very important that you have a coaching staff who knows how they want to play and knows what they want from their players. That makes our job 10 times easier. Everybody knows their roles,” Findley said in reference to RSL’s Jason Kreis and his staff. “It’s definitely important that you have the right philosophy.”
Salt Lake GM Garth Lagerwey added, “There’s no question Robbie’s a better player now than when he left,” and suggested that Findley, like many Americans who move abroad, may not have received the benefit of the doubt from Forest’s parade of new managers. Squads are deep in England and patience can run short.
“Adversity reveals character. We knew that Robbie was a tremendous person, a tremendously hard worker,” Lagerwey said of the decision to bring him back, which required executing a trade with the Timbers, of all teams. Portland had acquired Findley’s rights in the 2010 expansion draft.
“We believed that because of his high character, his response to the adversity of maybe not having the career he hoped for in England was that he was going to come back and be a highly motivated player.”
Lagerwey pointed out the fact that RSL has successfully integrated several players returning from Europe, like current central defender Nat Borchers and the departed Will Johnson, Robbie Russell and Clint Mathis. Sporting, which is run “by a lot of smart people,” according to Lagerwey, did the same with Feilhaber.
“It comes down to one word – identity,” Lagerwey said. “Both teams have an identity. We believe in what we do and we know who we are and that yields a system. But the identity is much broader than that. It certainly goes to what sort of off-the-field person we want, how we manage the salary cap and in terms of on the field, it yields a system. If you have an identity and a system you can plug and play, meaning if you lose a player, if you sell [former SKC forward] Kei Kamara, the next guy can step in and adapt.”
Of course, it’s also about the individual players. Feilhaber has the sort of touch and vision that few American players possess – look no further than his stunning chip to Dwyer to set up that winner against Houston. Vermes just had to help Feilhaber become “Sporting fit.” Findley had lulls during a regular season in which he scored six times. But he has speed, a nose for goal and a knack for rising to the occasion.
The quality was there. But to overcome inconsistency and disappointment, the intangibles are just as crucial. “Every good player has a big ego,” Vermes told SI.com. “If you ever get knocked down, demoted, however you want to phrase it, the second thing that kicks in is pride. If you really care about what you do, you’re going to take on the challenge and prove everyone wrong. That’s the key. It’s easy to have a big ego. The question is when they get faced with some real adversity … when they really haven’t achieved what they thought they would, you’ve got two ways to deal with that. You can go what what everyone’s saying and fall off the face of the earth and never reach your heights, or you can say, “You know what? I’ll freaking show these people because I can and I want to and this what I love to do.’”