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From the halls of Foxboro Stadium…

Everything Is Relative, Particularly In Football: Plus An Interview With Benny Feilhaber

Posted by tonybiscaia on August 11, 2011

A VIEW FROM THE FORT

By Jim Dow

The last month has offered a series of useful object lessons in the fact that in competitive sports, and in soccer in particular, the degree of similarity in qualitative levels can account for an enormous amount of the enjoyment on offer to the spectator.

A good example might be the following, with names withheld to protect the innocent. A certain WPS team took on a highly placed boys U-16 club side a few years ago and, to a degree, got their heads handed to them. A number of the professionals in question went on to perform admirably in this summer’s Women’s World Cup. From the point of view of sheer entertainment the U.S. Women’s matches were spellbinding and skilful, even if a significant amount of the latter came from certain Brazilian, French and Japanese players.

The fact is, the games were absorbing with an edginess that had previously been missing from women’s soccer and were well worth watching both as contests and as spectacle.

Looking back a number of years, the best MLS game I’ve ever seen was the Revolution/DC United Eastern Conference semifinal in October of 2004. Could the talent level of the two teams involved hold a candle to a bottom third Premier League match played in mid-February mud? No, but who cares, within it’s own relative setting it was as much a classico as Barca/Real or River/Boca. It was, as the Brit commentators like to say, riveting, end-to-end stuff.

Perhaps the most absorbing football match I’ve ever attended, including a World Cup quarterfinal, derbies in London and Buenos Aires and a Libertadores Cup Final, was a promotion battle between then Third Division Huddersfield Town and Newport County in 1983. If Huddersfield could manage a win they would go up into the then heady heights of old Division Two and the crowd was in full Yorkshire voice.

The old Leeds Road ground was a urine-drenched, grim, dark dump that made the urinals at the old Foxboro Stadium seem squeaky clean. The sight lines were terrible, the beer warm and the pies, well the less said the better. Despite the fact that both teams were made up of a combination of cloggers, no-hopers and the odd good player the circumstances brought the best out of all concerned and the entire match was played at a high tempo and with considerable skill.

While I can only attest to the quality through hazy memory the issue really is that the game held me spellbound from the kickoff to final whistle despite the fact that the circumstances were dead against it. On the day the teams had everything to play for and were perfectly matched. It was wonderful to watch.

What made me think of all this was the recent parade of packaged mis-matches during the horrifically bogus World Football Challenge that saw good MLS sides served up like sushi to pre-season walkthroughs by the likes of Man United, Man City and Barcelona. The results were horrific, lop-sided and, more to the point, as uninteresting as baseball on a hot summer’s day, or gridiron football anytime, much, much better for the Revs, for example, to take on Chivas, USA with the debuts of Caraglio and Fagundez.

That said, the beauty of soccer is that unlike other US pro sports, it isn’t a closed shop. Through competitions like the CONCAF Champions League MLS clubs can engage in meaningful competitions that actually provide some kind of significant measurement of progress, or not. The World Football Challenge simply serves to slake the thirst of Euro-posers to go to the stadium in the latest kit of their favorite team. Anything else is just $$$$.

At the same time, spectators don’t have to endlessly tune in to a steady dies of Arsenal/Chelsea/Liverpool/Man C&U in order to see terrifically interesting games. MLS can provide that, presuming that each club is fully committed to make every effort to keep up with the others in competitive terms. Currently, with the Revolution, that is the real challenge.

When Benny Feilhaber dropped into Steve Nicol’s lap everyone wondered how he would be utilized in the present New England set-up. After over half a season, it still isn’t clear. Watching the Brazilian-Californian midfield maestro it is clear that he is one of the most talented, skilled players to ever wear the New England shirt. The question is, will the current administration and personnel be able to take advantage of what he brings to the party. Hopefully, the remaining weeks of the schedule will make it clear, playoffs or no.

I spoke to Benny recently after training.

JIM: One of the things that I’ve noticed watching you play before you came here and now that you are with the Revolution is that you seem to have the ability to anticipate where the ball is going to move on the pitch. You know, in the rest of the world they say that the ball always moves faster than any player, yet here, in MLS it seems that the players seem to outrun the ball. I don’t know if you consider that a fair observation but I’m interested in your feelings about that, is that skill something that grew up with, did you work towards acquiring it?

BENNY: Well, I don’t think it is something that you work towards, I think it is something that you grow up with; I think it is kind of innate. Obviously I was born in Brazil and watched football from a very young age in Brazil, I saw how people played, I played on futsal courts with all my friends, just from looking at the way other people played and playing with those other people, I remember when I was six years old I would play with ten, eleven, twelve year olds, you know, and so I’m not going to be able to run down people like that so you start learning how to do whatever you need to do to get the ball where you want it. I think that definitely had a factor in the way that I play today. I don’t like to keep the ball too long on my feet, (although) sometimes it stays there too long, to be honest…

JIM: Life is like that…

BENNY: Yeah, but it is good to get it off your feet and get moving, and get other players moving for you and then getting it back in better spots, so, yeah, that is kind of the way I’ve always thought about that being the right way to play the game.

JIM: So if the telephone call came tomorrow and a voice says, well the bad news is you aren’t going to be on Klinsman’s team but the good news is that you are going to take over U.S. Soccer, would you take all the academies and put the kids onto the streets and into the salons de futsal?

BENNY: I don’t think the reason why Brazil and Argentina and (other) South American countries have that kind of play(ing) style) is necessarily because there are so many kids playing out on the streets and they kind of learn it in that sense (because) they play so much. If you look at European countries you have plenty of European countries where it isn’t like that, there aren’t a bunch of futsal courts everywhere where people are playing but they still know how to play the game. The Dutch (for example) play toca toca just like all the South American countries, so there are plenty of teams and countries in Europe that play that way, so I think it is a good step, the academies actually in the US, because it really gives (young) players the right tactical sense for the game at an earlier age.

I grew up playing here in YSO from six to eight, then I played on a travel team from eight to ten and then club soccer from ten to eighteen and then played college from eighteen to twenty… and through it all it isn’t that you are guaranteed that you are going to have great coaches all the way, so I mean that is a great step, I think, for creating that kind of tactical sense in U.S. soccer to have those good coaches implemented early on.

JIM: So, without naming names or anything like that do you feel that perhaps in your case you came into the whole pyramid of US Soccer development with a certain advantage of having had this background, this base to build on of a freer approach to the game?

BENNY: I don’t know if I’d call it an advantage, it’s just different than what other people had. People could say that it helped me but people could also say that it was a disadvantage. You could say that there are things that I had to learn more quickly than other guys because of the fact that my mentality wasn’t as such, my mentality at an early age was kind of I want the ball at my feet, I want to play here, play this, I don’t want to run as much and you know the American mentality is to really work hard and fight for the ball and do this and do that, so there are things that helped me but there are also things that I had to overcome, so I think I’ve to some extent kind of taken a little bit from both and that’s kind of the player that I am today.

JIM: It is interesting that you mention that there is this idea that in this country there is this huge emphasis on speed because, on the other hand, if you look at all the great teams around the world that play slowly, they are actually very, very fast.

BENNY: Yes.

JIM: You cannot play slowly, build up carefully, without being fast, in a sense.

BENNY: Yes, I think it is about quickness, I think if you take Brazil, they slow you down, slow you down and all of a sudden there are in with one, quick change of speed and they’re behind you, so you can say the same about all the teams that play like that, Spain, Argentina, all those teams. You know Argentina has got the ball in front of you, in front of you and all of a sudden Messi is running behind you, so it is a methodical way of playing but there definitely speed is a huge part of the game wherever (and however) you play.

JIM: Now, playing in this league and playing with the Revolution and being a player who wants the ball and, in fact, that the ball comes to a great deal, what are some of the strategies that you use in terms of distributing the ball? Do you look for particular combinations? I noticed the other night, against Kansas City, there were a couple of beautiful combinations with Shalrie, really nice triangles, is that something that you are building on here in training, or do you just play it as it lays, so to speak?

BENNY: To be completely honest, I’ve never really, typically, picked anybody out to try and play balls to. If I think one guy is in a better position than another and I try to get him the ball and it is a more dangerous play, then I’m going to go to that guy.

Obviously me and Shalrie kind of know how we like to play, so I think we find each other a good deal in games, I think it is just the way we like to play and we position ourselves and what not so that the ball does start to come from me to him and him to me more than maybe so other guys. But I’m definitely looking for other guys and if I see somebody who is better positioned than Shalrie I’m going to play it to that guy, so… But it was good to link up with him, I think the play that you mentioned with me, him and Rajko where he got that shot off was probably our best play in the (Kansas City) game, to be honest, our best sequence… But for me, the most important part is when I do have the ball that guys (are) making runs and checking for the ball and wanting the ball as well, then I can get the ball to them, hopefully, in dangerous positions.

JIM: There is a general criticism about the Revolution that they don’t appear, and you would know better because you are on the field, to make runs for each other. Everything seems to be reactive, after the fact, so to speak. Is that possibly a question of an extreme emphasis on defense, or is it more a question of not knowing as yet, how to play off and for one another?

BENNY: I think it is a little it of the defensive aspect because if you look at the Kansas City game, for example, the two halves were completely different. In the first half we were trying to play, we played rather well. I think I saw that we had more, just barely, of the possession. I mean we played pretty good football, better than what we had been playing in a while. In the second half, because we had that (one goal) lead I think we kind of thought, OK, we’ve gotten the lead instead of keep playing the same way, we kind of just wanted to hold onto the lead and you know, the further it gets on in he game the less time there is, the more and more we think, we’re that much closer, let’s not take any risks, no chances, so we tend to drop back a little more and that’s not necessarily the right thing to do because the more you drop back, the more the ball is going to be with the other team. But I think it does have that kind of defensive emphasis and that’s why we are dropping back a little bit more and probably has a bit to do with our lack of confidence right now in winning games. We’re trying to do everything we can to win games and just getting guys behind the ball and that’s sometimes not necessarily the best thing to do.

JIM: The surface that you play games on here, in New England versus the surface that you train on here, i.e. good, even grass, versus the surface that you played on in Kansas City, by all accounts a good, natural one, what are your feelings about artificial turf?

BENNY: I’ve never liked artificial turf, but to be completely honest, the turf here is actually one of the best I’ve ever played on. It isn’t like playing on grass, grass is always going to be better than turf, it is more… there’s no funny kicks, funny bounces, your foot doesn’t get stuck, I’d much rather play on grass than turf but this turf is actually something that hasn’t given me any problems, it is actually a really good surface.

I trained a lot in Denmark on that kind of surface but it was much, much worse than the field here and I had problems consistently with ankle injuries and knee injuries and all that stuff and here I don’t get that stuff. Playing on it once a week isn’t as bad as it sounds, I guess, it’s nice that we get to train on grass and then…

JIM: What if they just put this training surface on a tray and just rolled it in?

BENNY: Yeah, well it would be too spongy then (laughing).

JIM: Do you prefer being in the middle or on the outside and roaming? It seems like you do both very well but I’m curious which you prefer?

BENNY: Well my natural position has always been center mid, I think I’d rather play center mid for most teams, when it comes to playing on the left I’m also really comfortable because I’ve played so much here, with my Danish team, on the National Team, so I’m used to playing on the left. The only thing that is frustrating for me sometimes is when you are on the left and you don’t get the ball as much as you would like and then what happens is, I tend to come inside too much because I want to try and find the ball and then there’s no one on the left, so just that urge to want to get the ball draws me inside and sometimes that’s not what is best for my team. I’m comfortable playing on both (sides).

JIM: With all due respect, there should be this little sign that says, “Give Benny the ball…”

BENNY: I don’t know about that, I think that you can’t help a team playing individually…

JIM: No, no, I mean in the sense, as they say in football, going through you…

BENNY: I think that there are several guys that can make plays on this team, you definitely cannot have the mindset to go through any one player, whether it’s me, Shalrie, Rajko, whoever, it doesn’t matter who it is, you can’t go through one player, it is always, I think, in everybody’s head, you know the guys that can make this pass or that pass, and obviously, you want to get the balls to those guys but you need everybody doing their part and that includes everybody making the passes that they have to make, getting the ball when they have to, making the runs when they have to make them, or else it doesn’t work, you definitely can’t do it with two, three, four guys.

JIM: You have played here, you’ve played in Denmark, in England, you’ve played for the National Team, how would you characterize not so much the level of MLS but the style. Or is there a style?

BENNY: Out of everywhere I’ve played their style is most similar to the Premier League, it isn’t as physical, and not as technical and not as tactical being that the Premier League is the best league in the world… but it is the one that it is the most similar to, you know Germany and Denmark are very similar (to one another) in the sense that there is more of a slower pace, it is more of a possession oriented (style) while the Premier League is very direct, don’t get me wrong, there is possession in the Premier League but there is a very objective (intent) let’s get the ball and get it up, get a cross and put it in the box and it is similar to the MLS style where people want to hold on to the ball but they (also) want to get to the goal fast.

So it is more of a direct (style) and especially the way that we tend to play, our team here, you know Stevie wants to get us going in the right direction, getting balls in the box, getting headers and that is similar to the Premier League.

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