TAMPA, Fla. -- The soccer gods giveth and taketh in maddening fashion. One moment, a player is in peak form, only to see an injury or a drop in form kill his momentum. After a season of highs and lows, no one knows this better than U.S. international Benny Feilhaber. And as the American midfielder prepares for this Sunday's friendly with Ecuador, he's hoping that those looming soccer spirits will smile on him once again and give him his first appearance with the full national team.
When Feilhaber took the field for Bundesliga side Hamburg on Nov. 1, 2006, against Porto in the UEFA Champions League, he was flying high. It coincided was his first extended spell in the Hamburg lineup, and even though the young American's spot was partly due to injuries, he appeared to have earned the trust of head coach Thomas Doll.
"For my professional career so far, that was the highlight, those 2-3 months when I was playing," Feilhaber said. "And obviously playing in the Champions League is something that you kind of dream about as a little kid. It was definitely something I didn't expect to fulfill so early in my career."
Unfortunately, Feilhaber's euphoria wasn't matched by his club, which was eliminated from the Champions League and then slid alarmingly down the Bundesliga standings. Predictably, Doll was fired and replaced by veteran coach Huub Stevens. The return of Hamburg's injured players, like Raphael Wicky, forced Feilhaber to return to the bench. And with a clear relegation fight on his hands, Stevens moved to consolidate his first team roster. Feilhaber was consigned to training and playing full-time with reserves, which compete in the northern half of the German 3rd Division known as the Regionalliga Nord. While Stevens' moves have seen Hamburg climb out of the relegation zone, the team's ascension has proved bittersweet for the young American.
"It's been kind of tough on me," Feilhaber said. "I just have to keep playing."
Feilhaber has found the Regionalliga to be a different world entirely. Gone was the time on the ball that he had been afforded in first division matches, and it's been replaced by a frenetic game more dependent on physical attributes. The difference has served to blunt Feilhaber's considerable technical prowess.
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|U.S. vs. Ecuador,
Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Fla.
12 p.m. ET, ESPN2
U.S. vs. Guatemala,
Feilhaber added, "What everyone is looking for is that one turn of possession that can create a counterattack and get the goal. It's a really fast-paced league and it takes a lot of physical ability."
Through it all, the UCLA product has striven to make the most of his demotion. The 90 minutes he gets each week has kept his game sharp, and he remains determined to lead the reserves to the Regionalliga Nord championship. And of course, softening the blow was Feilhaber's call-up to the current U.S. national team camp.
"It's always good coming to the national team," Feilhaber said. "You feel really proud to come in, and confident also when you hear the call. You feel confident that you're a good player and that you should be in there."
That confidence could grow further with an appearance on Sunday, where a pairing with Landon Donovan in the center of midfield is a possibility. But even if Feilhaber doesn't make it on the field, the competition and atmosphere of the camp has provided him with a welcome break from the rigors of German soccer.
"The encouragement that everybody gives each other is a big difference," Feilhaber said. "Everybody wants to see everyone else do well. In [club soccer], everyone wants to see the team do well, but they obviously have the mindset of each individual doing well for themselves. It's fair under each set of circumstances, but the difference is it really helps out the young players."
It remains to be seen if this player-friendly atmosphere will pay off for Felihaber. Although the team is well-stocked on European-based veterans like Oguchi Onyewu and DaMarcus Beasley, Sunday's game could provide a chance for some younger players to make their mark. Feilhaber just hopes he's one of them.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at email@example.com.