Donovan’s corner kick appeared to be bound for striker Taylor Twellman when it was headed high and clear by a Mexican defender. The 2007 CONCACAF Gold Cup final, contested on the afternoon of June 24, was tied, 1-1, in the 73rd minute. Eleven minutes earlier, Donovan had leveled the score from the penalty spot, tying Eric Wynalda’s record for goals by a U.S. player in the process. The Americans had captured the momentum and neither Donovan nor Howard, both accomplished veterans, wished to see promising pressure wasted.
The ball fell toward 22-year-old midfielder Benny Feilhaber, who was standing a few yards beyond the edge of the penalty area. He was the third-youngest player on coach Bob Bradley’s Gold Cup squad and was appearing in just his seventh senior international.
“It was one of those moments when you’re sort of saying, ‘Bring it down. Pass it.’ I was probably yelling at him, ‘Get it wide again so I can serve it back into the box,” Donovan recalled. “Then you see he’s going to shoot and you say, ‘No, no, no.’”
Says Howard, “I was 100 yards down the field and you’re literally saying, “No, don’t shoot it. Keep possession. Don’t shoot.” We all thought the same thing. It’s such a low-percentage strike.”
Feilhaber wasn’t someone who worried too much about the odds. In 2003, he was a walk-on at UCLA. Two years later, he was playing for the U.S. under-20 team at the FIFA World Youth Championship, and in 2006 he made his Bundesliga debut for Hamburger SV. The following spring, Bradley gave Feilhaber his chance. Like the Mexican defender’s header, it came at him quickly. He wasn’t going to waste it.
“I remember seeing the ball up in the air and heading toward me. I just had to prepare my body to get underneath it and I never thought about anything else other than trying to hit it toward the net, and I know I probably had Landon out wide on the right,” Feilhaber says. “I could’ve played a touch to him and had him cross it again, or maybe done something else. But my initial thought was my only thought.”
Twellman, who’d entered the match as a substitute a few minutes earlier, barely had time to turn around.
“I think any good goal that I’ve ever seen or been a part of, when you hear great goal scorers talk, when their instincts take over and they’re not thinking about it, you often get your greatest goals,” says Twellman, the 2005 MLS MVP. “I think that’s a big reason why his form and technique were perfect.”
It was as perfect a strike as any player from any national team could hope for. By the time Mexico goalkeeper Oswaldo Sánchez left his feet to reach in vain for the volley, Feilhaber knew he’d scored. He ran toward the U.S. bench, arms outstretched and eyes tilted to the sky. He was slowed somewhat by midfielder DaMarcus Beasley, who was tugging on the back of Feilhaber’s jersey.
The U.S. would hold on, thanks in part to some outstanding work from Howard, to win its fourth Gold Cup title. It remains the only time the Americans have bested the Mexicans in a continental final—El Tri holds a 4-1 edge in CONCACAF’s showpiece match—and it had far-reaching implications. If Feilhaber’s blast seemed like it came from a catapult, it was fitting. At that moment, the U.S. national team’s trajectory changed.
Thanks to the Gold Cup triumph, the U.S. qualified for the Confederations Cup, a quadrennial tournament featuring continental champions that’s contested a year before the World Cup. In South Africa, Bradley and his team would use some of the same training grounds and hotels and play games at each of the three stadiums they would visit the following summer.
After opening the Confederations Cup with consecutive losses to Italy and Brazil, the U.S. slipped into the semifinals thanks to a 3-0 win over Egypt and some significant good fortune. There, the Americans would face top-ranked Spain, a juggernaut entering the match on a 35-game unbeaten streak.
The 2-0 upset shocked the world. Jozy Altidore put the U.S. in front midway through the first half and Bradley’s team weathered the Spanish onslaught thereafter, ultimately yielding 29 shots and 17 corner kicks but no goals. Feilhaber replaced forward Charlie Davies in the 69th, which sent a message. The U.S. hoped to exploit the space left open by the desperate favorites and had to make smart decisions with the ball. Circumstances called for someone with skill and vision rather than mere muscle. It paid off. In the 74th, Feilhaber reached a pass from Michael Bradley, sidestepped Sergio Ramos then dribbled confidently toward the top of the penalty arc, where he froze two more Spanish defenders before sliding the ball to Donovan. The ensuing cross was misplayed by Ramos and then swept into the goal by Clint Dempsey.
In the Confederations Cup final, which Feilhaber started, the Americans took a stunning 2-0 first-half lead but collapsed late. The 3-2 defeat stung. A year later, however, that silver medal would produce an obvious silver lining, and there isn’t anyone involved with the U.S. program who doesn’t see a connection between the Confederations Cup run and the group-stage triumph at the World Cup.
None of it happens without that victory in Chicago.
“For sure, there’s a thread from Benny’s goal to the  Confederations Cup and Spain and that amazing moment, and then a thread from that performance and how that two weeks in South Africa allowed us to be that much more prepared for the World Cup in 2010,” says U.S. Soccer director of communications Neil Buethe, who worked closely with the team and helped tell the story of its journey. “Those little things matter. You can never quite explain it or figure out how it translates on the field but at that level, a sliver can make a difference if a player or a team feels accustomed to their environment.”
Says Donovan, “Without Benny’s goal, if we lose that game, there is no Confederations Cup, which was such a huge moment for us as a national team, and back here stateside it was such a huge moment … to win a game [against Spain] like that was pretty special, and not only that but having the opportunity to go to South Africa the year before the World Cup, there were so many benefits from it. Thankfully he was there.”
Born in Rio de Janeiro (his father’s father was an Austrian Jew who escaped Europe in the late 1930s), Feilhaber moved to the U.S. when he was six. He flourished on suburban soccer fields in Westchester County, N.Y., and Orange County, Calif., and played his way onto the 2003 Bruins squad coached by former Columbus Crew manager Tom Fitzgerald. From there, Feilhaber’s rise was swift and in March 2007, he made his U.S. debut in a friendly win over Ecuador, having rejected an opportunity to switch allegiance to Austria. He scored his first international goal two months later against China and earned a spot on Bradley’s Gold Cup team that summer.
It was a U.S. team in transition. In addition to long-time coach Bruce Arena, stalwarts Claudio Reyna, Eddie Pope and Brian McBride were gone. A year removed from a poor performance at the World Cup in Germany, Donovan was 25 years old and entering his prime. His speed and skill, especially in the open field, would help shape American tactics for the next several years. Goalkeeper Kasey Keller’s international career was drawing to a close while Howard’s was blossoming. Meanwhile, several young and/or influential players entered the picture. The 2007 Gold Cup would be the first major senior tournament for Feilhaber, 19-year-old Michael Bradley, Jay DeMerit and Ricardo Clark, among others.
“There was a good mix of veteran guys and some younger guys,” Feilhaber says. “Bob wasn’t telling me exactly what he wanted from me and what he didn’t. He was letting a lot of the younger guys kind of fall into their way of playing and then he would judge everyone on what they could do. He let you play and let you try to be yourself and once he saw what you could bring on the field, then he’d decide whether to add that individual part to the team. It was a pretty easy adjustment for me. Even in that first camp, I felt pretty comfortable.”
Twellman, a somewhat controversial cut from the 2006 World Cup team, remembered that Bob Bradley “took a lot of heat” for some of his choices.
“That Gold Cup was the tournament where you saw the change of generations,” Twellman says. “It hit its peak at the Confederations Cup with Jozy and Davies, but you felt it kind of coming [in 2007].”
Feilhaber started each of the three first-round games and the U.S. opened the Gold Cup 3-0-0. But Beasley took his place in the quarterfinal and semifinal, a hard-fought and controversial 2-1 win over Canada during which Michael Bradley was red carded. That opened the door for Feilhaber to return for the final in Chicago.
“I don’t think I played a very good first half,” Feilhaber recalled. “I was kind of worried I’d be the guy coming out at halftime. Thankfully he kept me in there.”
Mexico had taken the lead on a 44th-minute goal from Andrés Guardado. It was Pablo Mastroeni who exited at the interval. He was replaced by Clark. Twellman then relieved Dempsey in the 68th, six minutes after Donovan’s equalizer.
“I did feel confidence once we got that goal,” Feilhaber says. “I thought we were playing better than they were at that point and then thankfully, I had that opportunity.”
The U.S. used its third substitution in the 72nd. Frank Simek, a 22-year-old defender, entered for Jonathan Spector. Fans watching at home were listening to Fox Soccer Channel announcer Max Bretos talk about Simek as Donovan’s corner was headed away.
“Bob would always put me at the top of the box [on corner kicks], just to kind of clean up any mess that came through,” Feilhaber says. “But I don’t think you can practice anything like [hitting the volley that resulted in the goal]. Free kicks, you can practice a million times, finishing, breakaways. But I don’t think anyone’s going to be flicking the ball into the hair and hitting a volley. I feel pretty comfortable kicking a ball from that kind of distance, the 18-yard-box and a little further out, and trying to hit the target. I thought in that situation, I just needed a clean hit. I had a good luck, nobody too close to me, and I could really focus on the ball and settle in and try to hit it clean. You’ve got to be confident in the way you hit it and I was, and luckily it went where it needed to go.”
“I don’t think lucky and skillful are mutually exclusive,” Feilhaber explains. “You tell LeBron James to do that 100 times, and he’s going to get it probably zero. If he hits that, he’s very lucky. He doesn’t play soccer. If I do it 100 times, maybe I’d hit it 10. You still have to be somewhat lucky because if you only hit it 10 times, you hope that’s one of the 10. And even if you hit it clean, a lot of times it doesn’t go in.”
It was one of the 10. Feilhaber says that he told roommate Jonathan Bornstein the night before the final that he had a “feeling” he’d score the game-winner. And he knew for sure at the moment his right foot made contact. It felt right. Feilhaber never saw the ball hit the net. He was turning toward the sideline as his shot rocketed inside the left post. His first instinct was to look for his family but after realizing they were too far up the Soldier Field stands, he headed toward the bench.
“Benny and his jets,” Bretos yelled.
“It was an incredible goal,” Howard says. “We’ve come from behind, in a final—against Mexico. It was absolutely incredible to feel the earth shake, to feel it shake when he scored.”
Says Donovan, “It certainly wasn’t luck. It was one of those plays where you make good contact and you hit it right and it’s got a chance to go in. To make the perfect contact and hit in the corner like you’re trying to, maybe that’s one out of 50, one out of 100, to hit it that perfectly. Benny is one of the few players who could pull off a shot like that. Technically, he’s so gifted and it was obviously pretty special, pretty fun to watch. A great moment.”
After the game, the U.S. players collected their medals and raised the big golden trophy. Feilhaber threw his jersey into the crowd.
“I thought it looked better on TV. I didn’t realize the ball left my foot that hard. It’s funny—maybe you don’t realize exactly until you finally see it afterward because your head’s just spinning in the game and it’s hard to tell at the time,” Feilhaber says. “Sacha said it was a cheerleader kick. He said my foot went up in the air like a cheerleader.”
Feilhaber had time to look at a couple of local newspapers on the way to the airport, and then the page was turned. The U.S. was beaten in all three games at the Copa América, which rankled fans back home. The long-term significance of Feilhaber’s goal wouldn’t be obvious for another two years, by which time he’d suffered through a miserable 2007-08 season at Derby County and had moved on to Danish club AGF Aarhus—a far cry from the Bundesliga and Premier League.
Bradley kept the faith, however, and continued to call in Feilhaber despite his uneven production at the club level. He wasn’t consistently a complete, two-way player and didn’t really gravitate toward a leadership role. But when he was on, there were few Americans better with the ball. That showed in Chicago and then again against Spain in Bloemfontein. And it was enough to convince Bradley to take Feilhaber to the World Cup, where he appeared as a reserve in the matches against Slovenia, Algeria and Ghana. The U.S. faced nerve-wracking moments during each and Feilhaber, who would replace a forward, helped establish the right rhythm. In his 165 minutes on the field, the U.S. tallied four goals and gave up one. During the other 225, the Americans scored one and yielded four.
Feilhaber’s uneven luck continued, however. His World Cup performance didn’t lead to the club opportunity he wanted and he had no choice but to return to AGF, which had been relegated to the Danish second tier. Finally, he signed with the New England Revolution in the spring of 2011. But the rebuilding MLS team wasn’t the right fit. In December 2012, Feilhaber was traded to Sporting Kansas City, where he would recapture a bit of that 2007-10 national team swagger. He gradually developed comfort with coach Peter Vermes’ high-intensity tactics, tallied three goals and six assists and helped SKC to the MLS Cup title. His form so far this season has left many calling on Jurgen Klinsmann to consider taking Feilhaber back to Brazil, the land of his birth. But he has played just three times for the current U.S. coach and doesn’t appear to be part of the World Cup plan.
Feilhaber, now 29, hasn’t scored an international goal in seven years. He has found a home in K.C., he can break a game open on a given day and he’s still regarded as one of the most talented U.S. players of his generation. But a legendary career requires more than talent. There should be consistency and transcendence and deep impact over time. Feilhaber’s doesn’t yet meet that standard. But that moment at Soldier Field—that was legendary. Countrymen have scored bigger goals or more beautiful goals, but it’s tough to find one boasting so much of both.
“I don’t want it to be like the only thing that anybody remembers about my career,” he says.
It may not be the only thing. But it will be the first thing. Few score a goal like that, one revered for its aesthetics and its importance—both on the day and as the catalyst for a team bound for bigger and better things. That’s not a bad legacy to leave. It was the sort of goal every player dreams of scoring. But only a few are capable.“I don’t think he gets enough credit,” Howard says. “He’s a good player and he possesses that skill that not a lot of American players possess.”
Says Feilhaber, “Maybe I’ll care later in life how people saw me as a player. I know how I like to be seen as a player by my friends, my family, my teammates—I like being seen as a guy who tries to take care of the ball, tries to find passes and opportunities at goal, that kind of ability to try a little bit something different … Everybody is going to be remembered for good things and bad things, and if that goal is one of the good things, I’d be happy with that.”