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Oct 14, 2007

Feilhaber: I feel my football can still grow a lot

It's been a successful year for former UCLA and Hamburg midfielder Benny Feilhaber who has established himself as one of the faces of the future of the U.S. national team.

He spoke with ESPNsoccernet about his experience in Germany with and his move to England this past summer.

ESPNsoccernet: Why leave Hamburg a team you played UEFA Champions League with just last season, for Derby County -- considered a perennial English Premier League struggler?

BF: Well for me, what's really important right now is [the opportunity] to be playing first-team football. My stay in Hamburg was really helpful and the two years there I grew as a player, even though I had nine Bundesliga and three Champions League appearances last year.

I knew I was not going to be a regular player in the first team this year to the extent that I wanted to, so I felt a move to a team where I could get more consistent minutes and be a consistent player was the best for me.

ESPNsoccernet: What are the details of your Derby County deal? How many years, what was the transfer fee?

BF: The transfer fee was in the region of 1.5 million Euros. My deal here with Derby County is for three years.

ESPNsoccernet: How difficult was it playing for Thomas Doll in Hamburg?

BF: I thought Thomas [Doll] was a really fair head coach. He gave all his players a decent chance even though it was tough for me to break into the lineup when I first got there. He gave me the opportunity my second year there and it's always tough with a team like that to break in, because there are so many guys in the midfield that are national team players for their countries, so it was a struggle.

ESPNsoccernet: Did your performance at the CONCACAF Gold Cup have anything to do with the move to the EPL?

BF: Yeah. Your performances will always help with interest around other leagues. I think my play in Gold Cup was something that caught the eye of Derby County. Also Copa America did not hurt my chances either.

ESPNsoccernet: Was Derby the only club interested in you?

BF: There were other clubs that showed interest, but none were so serious like Derby who came to me. Billy Davies called me himself and talked to me. I felt like they were the team that really wanted me the most and that influenced me also.

ESPNsoccernet: The English Premiership is different compared to the German Bundesliga. How will you cope with the changes?

BF: It's definitely different. I remember first coming into Bundesliga, I thought it was a really physical league and would be tough for me to get used. It might be more physical than something you've been used to, but then you also adapt to it. Here in England, it's very different than in Germany, because it's a lot quicker. The game moves at a faster pace, and every player has a little bit of adjustment and adapting to go through in the beginning.

ESPNsoccernet: You're a Brazilian born, American resident, and you are Jewish. Did you consider playing for Israel instead?

BF: [Laughs]. I don't even know if I could. I feel I am an American and I always wanted to play for the American national team. Even though I was born in Brazil, I've lived and played in the U.S. my whole adult life ever since I was 6 years old. I've always felt the U.S. is where I would always want to play.

ESPNsoccernet: In Europe are you looked at as a Brazilian-born player rather than an American import?

BF: I'm definitely seen more as an American player. Not a lot of people know that I was born in Brazil except for the players and people around me. I'm seen as an American international and I have no problems with that.

ESPNsoccernet: How did a UCLA walk-on end up playing in Germany?

BF: I went through the U-20 World Cup. My sophomore year in college, Sigi Schmid became the coach of the [U.S.] U-20 and he caught a lot of UCLA games living in Manhattan Beach.

He got to know me a little bit and gave me a chance to travel to the U-20 with the team, and that obviously was really successful. At the championships in Holland, there were a couple of teams that expressed interests in bringing me to Europe. I went to Hamburg and signed a contract after the championship.

ESPNsoccernet: Did you even consider MLS coming out of college?

BF: Yeah. When I was thinking about my options after the U-20 Championship, MLS was one of them. It went through my head, but the opportunity that came my way in Europe was something unique and I didn't know when I would have another chance like that, so I grabbed it. I felt I needed to jump at it right away.

ESPNsoccernet: Would you ever consider coming to play in MLS?

BF: Sure. Every American player does, or at least I do. I feel like I will eventually come back home and play in MLS. When? I'm not sure, because it could be a while, but I would like to play in the States and be able to maybe live in California. Right now though the focus is on doing well in Europe and I'm not thinking too much about MLS.

ESPNsoccernet: You mentioned that you are a product of the U-20 World Cup in The Netherlands. European clubs have snatched Freddy Adu, Danny Szetela and Sal Zizzo from the U-20 in Canada. Is it easier to impress teams on that stage compared to MLS?

BF: Oh yeah. First and foremost being the U-20, I think all European teams are interested in younger players -- bringing them in as early as possible so they can have a bigger influence on them. If a player goes into the U-20 and performs well, they will always have legitimate offers from those European teams. Plus it's a worldwide event and European clubs take it serious. MLS is a league that is looked upon, but it is more difficult to get players from there [MLS] than say the U-20 tournament.

ESPNsoccernet: What advice do you have for the younger guys making the jump to Europe like you did?

BF: The thing they have to know is that the first six months will always be the toughest. To be able to adapt not only to the football style, but also to the living style and language as well is very important. One of the most important things is to learn the language wherever you are going to play. It's crucial to be able to fit in with the people and the culture.

ESPNsoccernet: You mentioned the need to learn the language. How languages can you communicate in?

BF: Fluently, I'd say three, maybe four. Portuguese and English of course, maybe German now and I'd say Spanish. I can definitely communicate in all the four languages I mentioned.

ESPNsoccernet: I notice you keep referring to it as football. Did you grow up calling it football or soccer?

BF: It' something I just got used to here in Europe. When I'm back in the America, I do call it football sometimes as well. It's probably the influence of Europe and the way I talk now I guess. When I speak Portuguese, I call it futbol. I'll say soccer every once in a while too.

ESPNsoccernet: You are part of the future of America's young midfield, what should we expect from here on?

BF: I'm 22 years old and I really feel my football can still grow a lot. This move to the Premiership should really help me.

On the national team level, we have a good bond within the team, and the midfield is really young. It's one area that in a few years it will really grow into something special. I'm looking forward to continue in that relationship with those guys that play in there like Ricardo [Clark], Michael Bradley, even Pablo [Mastroeni], even though he is not as young as us. The relationship is really growing between us four.

ESPNsoccernet: There has been enough said about the chemistry between you and Michael Bradley. It has also been compared to Claudio Reyna and John O'Brien. Do you think that the midfield spot is yours along with his to keep?

BF: No, I think the midfield spot is up for grabs. I think it's who ever will step in there and play the best football and consistently, too. You always have to prove yourself whenever you come in to play for the national team.

I don't think anybody's got a lock down on the midfield spot right now. If you look at the Gold Cup, every single player played in there. It was not like there was one clear starter the whole tournament through.

Playing with Mike, I think we do connect really well together. Normally I know what he wants to do and he knows what I want to do also. Being that we've only played together for six months, I think it is a really good partnership and something that can only grow for the future.

Comparing us to [Claudio] Reyna and [John] O'Brien, it's something really special. Those two in my opinion were the best center mid pairing the U.S. ever had in its history.

ESPNsoccernet: Let's talk about your Copa America experience. Though the team lost all three games, how would you rate your individual and overall team performance?

BF: I don't think I performed the best possible that I could. I felt that I had two good games; two solid games. A game against Argentina is always going to be a tough game. You're going to be mostly on the defensive side of it and I definitely felt like I got tired in the second half. I felt in the first half I was really productive and I thought defensively we closed down really well.

All in all I felt it was as really positive experience for me, and the national team as a whole. The younger guys saw what it takes to play that level of competition in South America; how much the fans value the sport down there and it's refreshing and something that's good to see for all players.

Sulaiman Folarin is a regular contributor to ESPN The Magazine and covers MLS and world soccer for ESPNsoccernet. He can be contacted at sulaiman4real@yahoo.com.