“Twice blessed is help unlooked for.”
Tolkien always understood this. If Michael Burns and Steve Nicol didn’t previously, it’s a fair bet they both do now.
The New England Revolution’s surprise acquisition of Benny Feilhaber on April 21 certainly falls into the category of help unlooked for. The Revolution (1-3-2) have looked mostly mediocre this year, save for the opener against the LA Galaxy, and are mid-table with six points from a possible 18.
“Speaking frankly,” said Burns, the Revs VP of Player Personnel, to GOAL.com’s Alex Labidou. “There’s no way we thought he was going to be available.”
Feilhaber, a Brazilian-born midfielder who has been capped 38 times with the US National Team, was twice passed over in the allocation draft before he fell into the laps of Burns and Nicol.
Chivas needs help putting the ball in the net, and as Feilhaber is more of a creator than finisher, it is likely Chivas wanted to retain right of first refusal should a more attack-minded player come along. Think Herculez Gomez or Eddie Johnson.
Major League Soccer, in all its convoluted glory, uses the allocation process to give struggling clubs first crack at repatriating US internationals entering (or re-entering) the league.
While not a Designated Player, according to league sources, Feilhaber’s salary will count the maximum of $335,000 against the salary cap. The remainder of the player’s wages will be paid in allocation funds, held by individual clubs and awarded for missing the postseason.
Feilhaber spent time with Hamburg in the Bundesliga and Derby County—during their brief stint in the EPL in 2007/08—before joining Danish side AGF Aarhus, where he made 54 appearances, tallying five goals. AGF was relegated to the Danish second tier after last season.
The signing is especially welcome for the Revolution, as it will allow Nicol the freedom to utilize MLS All-Star Shalrie Joseph in his more natural role as a holding midfielder, taking some of the burden of creativity and ball winning off his shoulders.
If Nicol elects to continue with his preferred 4-3-3 formation, Feilhaber will be a welcome sight playing in front of Joseph and Ousmane Dabo, among others. If the ex-Liverpool man decides to go with a 4-4-2, the former UCLA Bruin could work as a wide midfielder or in tandem with Joseph in the middle.
Feilhaber joins Rajko Lekic, a Danish striker, as new a face around the Gillette Stadium clubhouse, and his arrival looks especially appealing when cast against the backdrop of Lekic’s goal-scoring record in Denmark and recent vows to produce goals if provided service.
Feilhaber adds experience, creativity and technical ability to the attacking third. The pair certainly seem to have the potential for an explosive partnership.
"He's a technical midfielder; he's good with the ball," Seattle Sounders coach Sigi Schmid, who coached Feilhaber while at UCLA, told The Seattle Times. "He's a good passer of the ball. Over the years, he's played a little more outside midfield now than inside midfield. He's certainly a quality player, and it's good to see him come back to the league."
Lekic made his Revs debut on April 17 during a 0-1 loss to Houston Dynamo, while Feilhaber could suit up against Sporting KC on April 23.
As far as Lekic goes, his pedigree speaks for itself. The Dane returned 76 goals in 121 appearances, all told, while at FC Silkeborg.
The Revs, by contrast, managed just 32 goals in 30 games last season, and despite some early promise, have fared little better this year, returning five goals in six games.
After signing a contract with MLS in mid April, the US international was made available to every team through the allocation draft.
Many, Nicol and Burns perhaps amongst them, considered it to be a foregone conclusion that Feilhaber would be snapped up by the club with the top spot in the allocation pecking order: Chivas USA.
“This was a really difficult decision because we had to look at a number of factors, first and foremost being if we take him and accommodate his salary within our salary cap, how much is that going to limit us going forward,” said Chivas USA head coach Robin Fraser in a statement on the team’s website.
“Certainly, we’re looking to address some needs on the team, and having Benny would’ve been great in our midfield because he’s a very, very good player. But the fact of the matter is his salary would’ve been so high that we wouldn’t have been able to make any adjustments going forward.”
The Rojiblancos’ boss indicated that the focus will be on future acquisitions during the summer transfer window.
“In the last 36 hours, it’s been looking at every possible scenario that we thought would benefit us, and as unbelievable as it may sound, it seemed like (declining Feilhaber) was the best move for the long-term benefit of the club,” said Fraser.
“The summer window coming up is an important time for us and we’d like to position ourselves to make some moves that we think are going to further improve our team.”
Even with Chivas passing, Nicol and Burns still didn’t think the World Cup veteran midfielder would get past the Philadelphia Union.
There’s no way that at (number) three, he was going to be available,” said Burns on the team’s website of his thoughts ahead of the 5 p.m., April 19 deadline.
“And the five o’clock deadline came and went and we didn’t get anything and all of a sudden I got a call from the League saying both Chivas and Philly had passed. We were quite surprised, to say the least.”
“We figured if he wasn’t going to Chivas, he was going to Philly,” reiterated Nicol on revolutionsoccer.com.
“So, when they didn’t (select him), it was pretty straightforward for us … particularly the last year we’ve lacked experience and we obviously have wanted to do better with the ball, so it was pretty straightforward.”
For Philly and head coach Peter Nowak, the decision was about quantity before quality. The ex-Poland international explained his reasoning at his weekly news conference at PPL Park on April 20.
“There were a couple of factors we have to take into consideration,” Nowak said. “First of all, we didn’t negotiate the deal in the first place; the league did.
"Second of all, it was almost at the end of the transfer window period, which made it difficult to adjust because we already made plans for the summer (transfer window). And the most important thing is the financial stuff.”
“We don’t have a $5 million salary cap where we can make such a decision,” Nowak said. “You do the math. I’d rather have three guys than one guy. I’ve never questioned Benny’s quality. But if you combine Roger Torres, Keon Daniel and Brian Carroll, those are three players that are pretty good and have some future.”
Well, one man’s overpriced midfielder is another’s saving grace perhaps.
“Some of the problems we had last year were a lack of experience and passing the ball,” Nicol told GOAL.com. “He’s a guy who, without a shadow of a doubt, brings loads and loads of both. It makes sense.”
As far as the player himself is concerned, Feilhaber is pleased to finally know where he will play and eager to help strengthen what he sees as a talented, yet, underachieving Revolution side.
“I feel I’m a good passer of the ball, I’m pretty calm on the ball and I can spring the team into the attack,” Feilhaber said on the Revolution’s website. “That’s definitely what I’m going to try to bring to the team.
“I think the team is stronger so far than the points we’ve got,” he said of New England’s record. “I’m excited to come in and meet the guys, be part of the whole team and try to help the team. I think we’ve got a good group of guys, and I see me fitting in well with the style of play.”