The news came via an early-morning email, and the initial reaction it sparked was shock.
Sporting Kansas City midfielder Benny Feilhaber assumed his United States men’s national team career was done. He had become at peace with that, even.
Then the email.
Its contents: Feilhaber was called to join the U.S. national team for a pair of vital World Cup qualifiers this month.
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“I didn’t expect it at all obviously,” he said. “I had moved on from believing it was still an opportunity there for me. It’s really shocking. Really shocking.”
In the final two qualifying matches in the CONCACAF hexagonal, the U.S will play Panama on Friday in Orlando before traveling to face Trinidad & Tobago on Oct. 10.
A pair of Sporting KC teammates will join Feilhaber there. Matt Besler and Graham Zusi will also represent the Americans during the World Cup qualifiers, their inclusions a bit less surprising. The trio will miss two Sporting KC matches — Saturday’s trip to Minnesota and a match in Houston four days later.
Besler has made 45 appearances with the national team, and Zusi has made 55. Both have been fixtures since Bruce Arena took over the team last year.
Not so for Feilhaber. After being called into January camp, which included some international friendlies, his phone went silent. He received a notification last month that he was on a preliminary roster for the upcoming qualifiers, and he mostly ignored it. He told only his wife, assuming he wouldn’t be included on the final roster.
After he was on it, Feilhaber received a call from a national team assistant coach confirming the news.
“I think my exact words were, ‘If you need me to be a cheerleader, I’ll be a cheerleader,’” Feilhaber said. “Hopefully I get more of a role than that, but it’s just exciting to be part of that group. Literally whatever they need me to do, I’m ready to do.”
The U.S. is in fourth place in the CONCACAF hexagonal. The top-three teams in the standings will earn spots in the 2018 World Cup in Russia. The fourth-place team will play in a two-game play-in series.
Besler and Zusi have been part of a Sporting KC defense that leads MLS with 24 goals allowed in 2017. That’s 13 fewer than any other team in the Western Conference. They were also part of the American roster for the summer’s Gold Cup championship-winning team.
Feilhaber has five goals and three assists with Sporting KC this season.
His national team tenure has been topsy-turvy. After 38 appearances for the U.S. from 2007-10, he made only three over the ensuing four-year period, falling out of the picture under the previous coach, Jurgen Klinsmann. He publicly stated his disappointment with the lack of variety in Klinsmann’s selections.
But Klinsmann was fired in November, and Arena promptly offered Feilhaber a long-awaited chance with a call into the January camp.
Nine months later, he’s offering him another. Feilhaber has not played in a World Cup qualifier since 2009.
“I think Bruce has been very honest about that. He’s taken a look at the entire pool of players — in MLS, Europe, Mexico, wherever,” Feilhaber said. “He’s shown that he’s willing to bring in guys that haven’t been brought in to each and every camp. I think that keeps everybody motivated.”