Sporting Kansas City midfielder Benny Feilhaber didn’t see this one coming at all.
But after receiving what he described as a surprise call to the U.S. Men’s National Team, the veteran is nevertheless itching to bolster a side that desperately needs three points from Friday’s pivotal World Cup qualifier against Panama in Orlando (6:30 p.m. CT, ESPN2, Univision).
“It’s a real shock to be here, to be honest,” Feilhaber told reporters this week in Central Florida. “I didn’t expect to get this call-up, but I’m here to do whatever I can for the team and help us qualify.”
Indeed, the U.S. MNT’s World Cup qualification status is anything but secured heading into the final two matchdays in CONCACAF’s Hexagonal. Currently occupying fourth place, the U.S. will host third-place Panama on Friday before visiting bottom-dwellers Trinidad and Tobago next Tuesday.
Wins in both games would guarantee the U.S. a top-three finish and progression to the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia next summer. Anything less, and the Americans run the risk of finishing fourth, which would send them to a two-legged World Cup playoff in November against either Australia or Syria.
“We’ve put ourselves in this position, where you could see it as a bad thing or a good thing,” Feilhaber said of the team’s current position in the Hex. “Obviously we control our own destiny, and that’s one thing we’ve been talking about a lot.”
Feilhaber’s inclusion on the squad may have raised a few eyebrows, but U.S. head coach Bruce Arena believes the 32-year-old brings a dimension that could make the Yanks more dangerous going forward.
“He’s a good passer, and in the final third of the field he has some qualities that I think we’re lacking,” Arena said of Feilhaber, who has collected just five caps since 2011 after making 38 U.S. appearances from 2007-2010.
The current U.S. contingent has a distinct Sporting KC flavor, as defenders Matt Besler and Graham Zusi have retained their roster spots under Arena. This makes Sporting KC the only team with three players on the current squad. Toronto FC is the only other club with multiple representatives in the camp — namely Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore.
Like Arena, Zusi pointed to Feilhaber’s playmaking abilities as a fresh injection into a side that has struggled to create clear-cut scoring chances against opponents that drop numbers behind the ball.
“Benny brings (qualities) to the game that not a lot of players can,” Zusi said. “He’s extremely good in the final third, providing the final pass and can also score goals. If he’s called upon, I know he’ll provide.”
Arena expects Panama to approach Friday’s fixture in a defensive posture, which just may prompt Feilhaber’s services. And while the matchup might have a tense, cagey feel as a result, Zusi is confident the team will reach its ultimate objective.
“They are certainly big games, but to be honest we’re in a position where we want to be. Our destiny is in our own hands, we control it, and as long as we take care of business, we’ll be happy.
“I think you’ve seen this team respond well to pressure in the past. We’ve been in these situations before, and it always seems like we come together at the right time and take care of the job.”
That job, above all, consists of beating Panama on Friday night. And if his number is called, Feilhaber won’t be short of confidence to step into the spotlight.
“I’ve always believed in what I can bring (to the team),” Feilhaber said. “I think I’ve been extra motivated every time I was called in, so it’s nothing different for me. I know what the international game is like, I have a little more experience, and I feel confident that I can make a difference and help the team.”