“A [soccer] playing career tends to be no more than 15 years at most, whereas whatever you choose after that, it’s going to be much longer than 15 years, if you’re successful at it.” Sporting KC II Head Coach Benny Feilhaber
When fan favorite midfielder Benny Feilhaber returned to Sporting Kansas City in May of 2019 after being traded to Los Angeles FC in January of 2018 and after following on to Colorado Rapids a year later, he was already in Year 15 of his professional playing career.
“When I retired [in March of 2020], I always thought there were three doors I could go through: coaching; a general manager or sporting director, like an office job but still within the soccer world; or TV commentating or analyst or whatever,” revealed Feilhaber via phone interview last Thursday afternoon. “I always knew that coaching was the closest I would feel like to actually playing. I thought that would be the one that I would enjoy the most.”
The 2010 World Cup veteran with the United States – with club stints in Germany, Denmark, England, and the US – needed answers. But the process was not that direct. The answers not that immediate.
The now 39-year-old Brazilian-native first stepped through Door #1 and became an assistant coach at his alma-mater UCLA in August of 2020. Then, he joined the Sporting Kansas City technical staff as Director of Technical Operations in January of 2021, trying out Door #2. Then, on August 23 of that same year, Feilhaber took over as manager of Sporting’s U-17 Academy team.
Boom. Boom. Boom. That was a lot in one year’s time.
Perhaps he had already gotten some answers. But more questions were to come as Feilhaber was named head coach of Sporting Kansas City II for the 2022 season.
“When I first took the job here, that was the goal to figure that out: if I was genuinely going to enjoy it, if it was something I was going to be good at, if it was something I could see myself doing for the long term,” said Feilhaber. “It was a big decision.”
“I like being on the field. I like working with the players. I like the competitive aspect of it,” stated Feilhaber. “So, in these last two-to-three years here at Sporting, I can say categorically that it is my goal to stay within the coaching profession and keep climbing the ladder.”
“When I first got into coaching, I thought, ‘I don’t know if I’m really the motivational type.’”
A flair for rising to the moment. A dynamic, enterprising playmaker. A sometimes moniker “Benny and his Jets” referred to his fiery passion, his swagger that burst forth. This was Benny Feilhaber as a player.
“I was always self-motivated as a player. I didn’t need a coach to tell me, ‘Hey, this is a big game.’ The bigger the game, the more I was up for it,” he reflected.
Who Feilhaber was as a player was motivation enough to get the USL League One Young Player of the Year Ethan Bryant to come to SKC II from Richmond Kickers in December of 2022.
“A big part of why I came to SKC II was the opportunity to work with [Feilhaber],” said the now 22-year-old Bryant via phone interview Tuesday morning. “I knew the sort of player he was, so I felt he could definitely help me, especially in that midfield role.”
Bryant soon learned of his mentor’s approach.
Said Feilhaber: “And I always thought – I even said this to some of my players – ‘My job here is to teach you, to develop you, to help you understand the game better, to set you up in a way in a game for you to be successful, whether it be individually or as a team. But you guys got to be motivated.’”
In his first year with SKC II – Feilhaber’s second year of being the head coach – Bryant found motivation inherent in Feilhaber’s ways: “It’s not a dictatorship. He’s going to us, and he is asking us thoughts on stuff. And whenever you have a coach who respects your opinion, it makes you want to work for him. He’s very good at managing players. He is fresh off his playing career, a young coach. So, he gets it. The thing I really respect about Benny is he keeps it real with you. The players are motivated to work more for him just because of who he is and how he acts with us.
“Say we have a bad game, he will come in and ask, ‘What do you think we did wrong?’ This could be tactical; this could be his decisions. And he is talking to us about that sort of thing. It seems like he is constantly learning as well. We are all learning as we go. I appreciate a coach being open to the idea that maybe he messed up too. I like the idea of a coach being able to ask the players if they thought differently.”
“I still agree, to some extent, [that players should be self-motivated],” said Feilhaber. “But at the same time, I found ways to try, especially [with] individual players, to motivate them and get them to see the bigger picture and continue to improve themselves. I’ve become a more motivational coach than I would have expected to be two years ago.”
“I have learned quite a bit over the last two years with the second team. And I can answer some questions that I didn’t have those answers [for] two years ago about how I would be able to motivate players or have players understand the ideas that I have in my own head,” Feilhaber intimated. “I [now] do feel I have that in my tool belt to be able to express myself and teach and get players to buy in and understand the team philosophy… It’s something that until you actually do it, you don’t know exactly if you’re going to be good at it or not.”
In 2023, SKC II finished the regular season with a 13-9-6 record with four further shootout victories, good enough for 3rd place in MLS Next Pro’s Western Conference. Additionally, their 60 goals scored was the second most in the entire league.
Impact the first team?
Inspired to drive their club above the rest, fans and pundits alike have brainstormed the admittedly salivating possibilities of Feilhaber being the one to inject fresh energy and fresh ideas into the first team.
On the Shades of Blue podcast, we recently went further, proposing that the gifted midfielder get back on the pitch. I gave Feilhaber the proposal: “We’re okay with you on the pitch, sitting on a lawn chair, and picking your spots to impact the match. You in?”
“I know you guys would love that,” Feilhaber laughed. “I’m going to probably say no at this point, but I will let you know if I change my mind.”
The current first team coaching staff saw its last alteration in 2012. Feilhaber’s bold and direct attitude, his educated mind, and his experiences and accomplishments as a player across four countries could serve Sporting’s first team well.
Perhaps that is the plan. But Feilhaber is focused on what he can do within his current job to impact the first team.
“That’s the job, right?” Feilhaber stated. “The job is to develop the players we see on a regular basis down here.”
Case in point: 20-year-old winger/center forward Alenis Vargas, who spent 2023 on loan with SKC II, recording six goals and five assists in 21 appearances while drawing three penalty kicks. Vargas was brought to the first team on December 15, 2023.
“We helped him develop to where he is good enough and at a better place in his career to go out to the first team and have a higher production level,” commented Feilhaber. “If Alenis has a good season on the first team, we can say we had an impact on that. That is a prime part of the job, and, in that sense, we have a very direct correlation at improving the first team roster and depth and how they can continuously improve.”
In actuality, Feilhaber attends first-team training once a week during the season, and he was not in Florida for the recent first-stage of preseason, nor will he be for the second stage. No matter the amount of face time with the first team, “there is never a time when I am going to talk with [Sporting Kansas City Manager] Peter [Vermes] about what I think he should do with his team.” Opposite conversations occur for certain.
“I think that ambition and goals change. They change [dependent] on where your career goes. As a player, it changed all the time,” Feilhaber said. “The better I became, the more my goals were higher; I aspired for more things.
“It’s the same thing as a coach. I just wanted to get my foot in the door; I wanted to coach a team; I wanted to see what it would be like and learn and get better and experience and win games. And, last year, with getting into the playoffs and try and win a championship. You morph into something more than what you were in the past.
“I don’t want to coach Sporting Kansas City’s second team for the next 15 years.”
Ambition needs opportunity to be answered, and opportunity has visited Feilhaber.
“I was in the final candidates for the Phoenix Rising (USL) job this last offseason. And I was reached out to by another MLS Next Pro team to be their head coach,” Feilhaber revealed.
“That MLS Next Pro team, I think it wouldn’t have made sense, and think Peter wouldn’t [have] wanted to me leave anyways. So, nothing transpired from that,” Feilhaber summarized.
Feilhaber leaving Sporting KC would be nothing but a shame. Yet, the interest from Phoenix Rising was a step towards fulfilling ambitions, having only previously interviewed with his longtime acquaintances at Sporting.
“I had an interview, which was great for me in terms of experience, with Phoenix Rising. I had a Zoom call and then I went there in person and had an interview with the organization,” Feilhaber told. “It was good for me to know that there are people who are interested in me and are seeing the work that I am putting in here at Sporting Kansas City II. It’s a completely different experience going to a completely different club where I don’t know people and being able to talk about my ideas.”
“He’s a very smart coach, which is reflective of how he was a player. He was a very smart player and has a high soccer IQ. He’s an intellectual guy who is always looking for solutions. He is always trying to get the best out of players,” Bryant said of his coach. “Benny has a really good combination of a tactical understanding of the game, but then also the experience of being a player for so many years at a high-level and using that experience to maybe coach the way he wished he had been coached.”
Feilhaber was not offered the position, a position that could have been a step towards a beckoning goal.
“The [goal] is to eventually get to an MLS coaching job or beyond,” Feilhaber stated. “Obviously, I don’t know where the pathway leads, but that is definitely the long-term goal.”
But more answers will need to come. More ambitions will rise. And who knows, Feilhaber may find himself in a different position as his career evolves, maybe one that exceeds his expectations.
Maybe even our Shades of Blue wish will come to fruition one day… Benny coaching on a touchline across from a coach who didn’t see his potential as a player even when Feilhaber was an MLS MVP Finalist, one-time US Men’s National Team Coach Jurgen Klinsmann, in a cup final. We would love that.