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Jan 22, 2008

Feilhaber determined to make it work in England

Forgive Benny Feilhaber if he is a bit wistful at the changing of the calendar.

2007 was a pretty good year for the midfielder. He saw increased time with his old club, Hamburger SV, including significant action in the Champions League. He made a dream switch to the English Premier League, where he now suits up for Derby County. Not to mention he has become a fixture in the national team picture, scoring the winning goal against Mexico in the Gold Cup final.

Auld lang syne? Auld news.

With a new year come new challenges and opportunities for a player who is going through transition. During his time with the national team, Feilhaber has showed the ability to dictate the midfield play. He's also showed a willingness to get stuck in and combine a Brazilian panache with a surprising penchant for physical play, reminding many of Claudio Reyna.

"Benny has a Brazilian flair," noted U.S. international Heath Pearce. "It sounds a bit cliché but he brings a creative side to his game that I think can be helpful in making the United States a more dynamic team."

Feilhaber's play with the national team over the past year has seen a far more tactically advanced player then the one who last was seen on the world stage in the 2005 U-20 World Cup. Feilhaber has seemingly become the heir apparent to the defensive midfield opening in Bob Bradley's team. His passing won praise from fans and his ability to track back earned the respect of veteran teammates. Feilhaber, however, was getting more than just stateside attention.

"The Derby deal first came out when I was on my break in California," said Feilhaber about the transfer to his new club. "Billy Davies, then the manager, called me and talked to me about the possibility of me coming over to England and playing on his squad. It was a good conversation and from then on, I kept contact with him and it eventually developed."

"My performance this summer definitely had a big part in the transfer," he says."Billy was able to watch me in those games and he felt I was ready to make the jump to Premier League football."

It hasn't been the easiest of jumps. Feilhaber's Derby side has struggled in what has been a very trying season for the club. It has conceded more goals then any team in the division and scored the fewest. Perhaps it isn't surprising that Derby sits at the bottom of the Premiership.

Feilhaber is an easygoing guy. He loves to laugh and teammates will say that he is a bit of a prankster. But don't let the Brazilian flair on the field and the "live and let live" demeanor off the field fool you. Benny Feilhaber is very serious about his "football." He took the struggles of the opening months of his new English adventure very seriously.

"It is always tough when you're not playing much and it is a struggle mentally to keep yourself going every day of training and even outside the football field, it's tough to keep your thoughts right as to why you're over here in Europe -- all by yourself," Feilhaber said. "As long as you can keep motivated, then you should be all right and it was hard on me, but I kept my head in the right place for the most part and got through it."

Having made his debut with the team in August, Feilhaber appeared destined to be a regular with the team. Despite Derby's struggles, he has made only eight appearances with the team, one of which was a start. Despite the challenging season that Derby has endured, Feilhaber remains optimistic about the move and his chance for increased playing time.

"I made the right choice coming to Derby," Feilhaber said, when asked if he had any regrets about the move. "I remain confident that I will get the chance soon and prove that the decision made to come here was the right one."

It is more then the right choice for Feilhaber, who has seen his playing time steadily increase over the past several weeks. With the introduction of a new coach to the team, he remains convinced that the team will not only battle against relegation, but that his chances with the first team will increase as well. The Brazil-born Californian who first started playing professional soccer in Germany has really taken to life in England. Rumors of interest by teams in MLS and even Maccabi Tel-Aviv are founded in reality, but Feilhaber remains committed to his club.

"Paul Jewell has become the new gaffer," said Feilhaber, showing off his newly acquired British slang. "He has already changed certain things in the team, the attitude of the players has improved and he brings in a little extra so that everyone feels a bit more confident. He's the man to lead us."

On the field, his challenges have been steep. Feilhaber notes the competitiveness of the Premiership as a major adjustment. The style of play, more direct than the Bundesliga style, is only a part of the equation. The speed and fitness of the play is a big transition as well.

It's not for a lack of offers that Feilhaber is where he is.

Other clubs had showed strong interest in him, ranging from Heerenveen in Holland to Strasbourg in France and West Bromwich Albion in England. Even Hertha Berlin was floating his name around. But Feilhaber chose Derby because he believed in the club and saw an opportunity to make an impact with the team. The opportunity to play consistently for his club and at a high level will have an impact on his performance with the national team.

He describes the job that Bob Bradley is doing with the U.S. national team as "great" and said that his exposure with the side has changed how he plays soccer. The five weeks he spent with the U.S. team last summer elevated his game and taught him how to play smarter and better. Feilhaber says that he fully expects to be a mainstay in the national team midfield for years to come.

"The games I got under Bob this summer in the Gold Cup and Copa America, were huge for me," Feilhaber said. "I really enjoy playing with all the guys on the national team -- everybody just helps everyone else out by giving them confidence and pushing one another."

One of those impressed is national team defender Jay Demerit. Having played for a recently promoted Watford team last year, Demerit can understand the struggles of playing in the Premiership. He knows the highs and the lows of playing in the most visible league in the world.

"He's [Feilhaber] a young kid with a bright future," Demerit said. "It seems like he's getting better every time I see him."

For now, Feilhaber will continue to be faithful to his team, pushing hard to make an impact. Always, but always with an eye on 2010.

"I would like to become consistent player in the [national] team," he noted on the outlook for the new year. "We're definitely building to have a great team in the qualifiers of the World Cup and the World Cup itself."

Kristian R. Dyer is a freelance writer for ESPNsoccernet. He is the associate editor of Blitz magazine and also writes for the New York City daily paper METRO. He can be reached for comment at KristianRDyer@yahoo.com.