He was one of the breakout stars of last summer's Youth World Cup, and now he is in Europe, trying to force his way into a talented Hamburg SV side. For a young man who emigrated to this country at age five and walked onto the UCLA team, Benny Feilhaber hasn't rested on his laurels. ESPNsoccernet's Kristian Dyer had the opportunity to catch up with Benny, as he makes the push to be included in Hamburg's senior side.
ESPNsoccernet: Benny, thank you for joining ESPNsoccernet to update us on your second season with Hamburg SV. What have you been up to since the season ended a few months back?
BF: The month of June I was on vacation and went to California for two weeks, and went to my birthland as well. My family and I also traveled to visit Brazil for two weeks and spent some time with my other relatives, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. I got back to California May 28, and spent some time with the family, but for the most part was with my friends at UCLA, where I stayed at my ex-teammate Kiel McClung's apartment for a while. For the most part, we just had some fun and hung out, watching the World Cup and whatnot.
Fitnesswise, I also worked out using the UCLA facilities while I was up there.
For the most part during my vacation I relaxed and didn't stress myself out too much with fitness, but did try to keep my body in some sort of shape. I knew preseason would get me ready for this season.
ESPNsoccernet: Looking back on the past year, how have things gone with your time in Germany? How has the transition been?
BF: The transition from UCLA to Germany was not easy. Over the past year, I have been introduced to many different aspects of life, which includes a new language, a different culture, and another style of football. I found it took about six months for me to really adapt to the life here. I was struggling on and off the field at first, but I felt my football really improved after the winter break. Right now, I feel more comfortable than ever. My football is the best it has ever been and I continue to train well with the first team. I think I have a chance for quality minutes this year.
ESPNsoccernet: A fellow teammate of yours with the U-20s, Mike Bradley, has followed a somewhat similar path to yours as he started with the Heerenveen reserve team, only to start seeing some significant minutes now. What are your thoughts about Michael's success and did you anticipate this?
BF: I have only played with Mike one time, when we were both on the U-20s, and I think he has the right qualities to do well at Heerenveen. I've seen him play some games in MLS as well and think that he knows when to play relaxed football and when he has to turn it up a notch. From what I've seen in the Dutch league, this is very important, because although it is a more technical league than some others, it does require a lot of physical play as well.
Knowing that Bradley can do well over there and be a starter makes me feel good about U.S. Soccer, and of course makes me happy for my fellow teammate of the future.
ESPNsoccernet: Critics will say that you would have been better served by spending some time in MLS before honing your game overseas. Why did you decide not to make the jump to MLS and pursue Europe instead?
BF: I chose Germany over MLS because I thought I would better develop here (HSV), of course, and have a better future in my profession. I think the opportunity to come to Europe is small, and if you are given the chance to come, you have to take it. When I made my decision I felt that I would not receive this opportunity again to come to a top European team, so I took what was offered to me.
ESPNsoccernet: It seems like many players have gone overseas to make their name in Europe and haven't succeeded. As someone with a season of European experience under his belt, why is this the case?
BF: I think that Europe is a great place to develop your football but I don't think it is for everyone. It is not an easy place to get used to, and not everyone would do well here, and could better perform and develop in MLS. I think for me personally, I am developing to become a better football player here in Europe, because now I am comfortable here.
ESPNsoccernet: Your schedule surely has changed from your time to UCLA as you've become a professional athlete. Take the ESPNsoccernet readers through a day in the life of Benny Feilhaber.
BF: Typically, I wake up around 8:30 in the morning to have a small breakfast with some toast, eggs, and always chocolate milk. I leave the apartment for training at around 9 and arrive shortly thereafter at the stadium at 9:15. Training is at 10, but we have to arrive 45 minutes before training starts. During that time, I do some stretching, abs training, and pushups. The next 15 minutes, I get ready for training by putting the training gear on, maybe getting taped or getting something done by the trainers, and we all head out to train at 9:45. Training takes under two hours, so we're back in the locker room around noon. I head back home, run some errands normally after practice, like going to the supermarket, or buying anything I need around the apartment, gas station, and so on.
Once I am back at my place, around 2, I will eat a light lunch: a sandwich and Brazilian iced tea, known as a matte. What I do at home for the next couple hours varies. Sometimes, I take a nap, watch some television, go on the Internet, talk to friends on AIM and so on. Once in a while, my buddies and I will play Winning Eleven on PlayStation2.
Around 6, I tend to start preparing my dinner. This takes an hour or so and I have it done before 7 and finish eating it in a half-hour. Towards the end of the night I will watch some soccer highlights on TV or a movie of some sort. I will go to sleep normally around 11 to be ready for the next day.
ESPNsoccernet>: A number of your teammates on the youth national team are scattered throughout, playing college ball, MLS or in Europe. Do you keep up with their whereabouts?
BF: I have followed the development of many of the U-20 players; I know many of them are playing in the MLS now and I am in contact with them as well on a regular basis. Everyone is doing well from what I hear. Some went to Europe after the college season much like me, and they have also done well where they've gone. I think the Olympic team, which I hope to be a part of, has a bright future ahead for the Olympics and the World Cup in 2010.
ESPNsoccernet: What lessons have you learned while in Hamburg? What adjustments have you had to make on and off the field?
BF: The biggest thing that I have learned here in Germany is how to live independently, especially since I don't have my family close by. I didn't have any friends when I got here, and it was definitely a difficult experience for me, but it made me stronger as a person. I think it is something important to learn because you can only learn these things by actually experiencing them, so even though it was tough for me in the beginning, now I really appreciate what I've learned from the transition.
The biggest adjustment here in Germany wasn't on the field, it was the language. You have to speak the language, it is how you communicate, and without knowing German, you can't have any sort of social life. For someone like me that would be very difficult. I would not be happy here and would not be able to play football to my potential without the ability to converse, so I took classes in German twice a week, two hours a day. My improvement, not only in the language, but on and off the field, really started to show towards the six-month mark. About that time, I began to feel comfortable.
ESPNsoccernet: Why did you decide to not stay in UCLA for another year?
BF: I think turning pro is all about timing. You have to know when you're ready and it has to coincide [with] when teams are interested in you. Too early, you could get burnt out; too late and you don't get enough chances to prove yourself. I think my time arose at a time where my football was improving and I felt I was ready to make the jump from college to pro. I had had a good year for UCLA the year before and had been called to the U-20 World Cup and had played well for the national team, so there was some interest in me then from Europe. I knew how tough it would be to get another chance to go to Europe, so I took that into consideration. All in all I made my decision, because everything just seemed to fit.
ESPNsoccernet: Entering your second season, you must be expecting to see some time with the first team and hopefully the national team. You have received two call-ups to the national side.
BF: Well, I think that I could be close to becoming a more consistent part of the national team, but I think I need to first become a consistent part of the Hamburg first team. Once I am able to achieve that, I believe I will be at the level I need to be to play with the national team consistently. You never know with football, you could get your opportunity tomorrow and never know it was coming. You always have to be ready, and work for that opportunity. So I can't say for sure how close I am to being a regular on the full national team, but I hope so.
ESPNsoccernet: When you look at yourself as a budding player and professional, whom do you see yourself becoming or emulating? Whose game translates most closely to your style and preference?
BF: I've never really known who to compare myself to, but I've heard who other people compare me to. If I had to say someone who I'd like to play like, it would be Andrea Pirlo of the Italian national team. I say this because I think he has incredible vision, and really good passing abilities, which opens space and makes it easier for his teammates to play. The best position for me on the field I think is the defensive midfield position, because I like to distribute the ball to my teammates in higher positions on the field to give them opportunities to create goals. When I play in a 3-5-2, then I love to play the central of the center midfielders. I want to be the one who brings the ball up the field and can feed the forwards, or wingers. I would say those two positions are my favorites, and where I would be most successful.
ESPNsoccernet: What are your chances of cracking the Hamburg SV first team? What impression have you been left with from the coaching staff?
BF: Well, I think I have a good chance to break the first-team roster, but I'll have to wait for some injuries to get a chance of playing. Once I am able to play first-team minutes, then everything can go pretty quickly. If I play well, I could seal a spot as a first-team option and get more minutes as the season progresses.
The coach told me I made big steps in preseason [toward] playing with the first team and that I am a different player this year as [compared] to last year, so we'll see how my chances progress from here.
ESPNsoccernet: Would you consider a Landon Donovan-type move to MLS, on loan for a year or two, to gain experience and develop?
BF: I am not considering any move to MLS, but you never know what could happen. If Hamburg thinks I won't be able to get valuable minutes with the first team here, the option is there to be sent on loan somewhere. I have not thought about that yet.
ESPNsoccernet: Why Hamburg? What other clubs were interested?
BF: Several top sides, including Heerenveen, Kaiserslautern and Mallorca were interested in me. I felt that Hamburg wanted me the most and I thought it was a team that was on the rise; the level of the players here are really high and I know that even when I'm not playing with the first team, I'm still going to get valuable training experience with the first team and some action with the reserves. All in all, I thought it was the best situation for me. The people from the club were really friendly to me and made me feel at home from the beginning. I really liked the city as well. It was the right decision.
ESPNsoccernet: What part of your game needs to develop the most? What have you been working on to develop?
BF: The thing that I feel needed the most work is my physical strength and endurance to play well the whole 90 minutes. I felt those were my weaknesses and have been able to better both of them the last couple months. I have to keep working on these things so they are no longer weaknesses to my game.
ESPNsoccernet: Shifting gears now, there has been a strong sentiment that Juergen Klinsmann will be offered the position as the next national team coach. As someone who plays professionally in Germany and has observed Klinsmann first hand, what are your thoughts on the former German national team coach?
BF: Well, I think that Klinsmann would be a great coach for the USMNT; he is someone who inspires other people to play their best and gives his players all a lot of confidence. I think he brings a different tactical game to the U.S. because he seems to be a coach who likes to organize his team to play pretty soccer and to attack their opponents. This would be a change as to how we played in this last World Cup, so I think it could bring a new perspective to U.S. soccer, which would be good for the team and for our footballing nation.
ESPNsoccernet: Speaking of the World Cup brings up an interesting correlation. Often, we hear about a bias by European coaches against American players. You're in a unique position to offer some commentary on the World Cup and the United States' performance. How did the Germans interpret our tournament? Did the United States' three-and-out performance in any way affect the perception of you?
BF: I think the performance by the U.S. in the World Cup was disappointing to everyone, but it is something all the players will learn from. U.S. soccer has the talent to do well in every World Cup but we have to be concentrated for 90 minutes in every Cup game. In such a high-level competition, one mistake and it could cost you the whole tournament. The performance at the World Cup didn't change the opinions of players or coaches about me. Nobody has associated me with the performance in the World Cup and I don't suspect there should be any relevance to how the U.S. performed in the WC to how I play for HSV.
Kristian R. Dyer is a freelance writer who covers U.S. Soccer and MLS for ESPNsoccernet and is the soccer editor for The New York City Sporting News. He can be reached for comment at KristianRDyer@yahoo.com