On Wednesday, Benny Feilhaber was traded back to Sporting Kansas City from the Colorado Rapids. The compensation was unique and truly peak MLS. But now that Benny is back, the question is where does he fit into the midfield?
Who’s on the Roster at Midfield?
First, let’s break down all the Sporting KC midfielders on the roster. The obvious starters, if healthy, are Ilie Sanchez, Felipe Gutierrez and Roger Espinoza. The next tier of players include Feilhaber, Gianluca Busio, Kelyn Rowe and Yohan Croizet. After that it’s Gedion Zelalem and Wan Kuzain Wan Kamal. Beyond them it’s players like Graham Zusi, who would be playing out of position.
There are primarily three midfield positional choices: defensive midfielder (#6), box-to-box midfielder (#8) or attacking midfielder (#10). It can be argued Sporting really play a #6 and two #8’s. So which of the three midfield spots does Benny fit best in?
Attacking Midfielder (#10)
It’s likely most people would indicate this is Benny’s position. At least historically. According to Transfermarkt, that’s primarily where he’s lined up for the Rapids this season. When he was with SKC in his previous run, it’s arguable that this is the spot he played. It allows him to drift forward a little more and join the attack. That said, the way SKC play, it’s much more likely that they don’t play with a true #10 and it’s more of a hybrid between the #8 and the #10.
Box-to-Box Midfielder (#8)
Think Roger Espinoza. This is the role he plays and is currently unable to play due to his injury. In my opinion, at 34-years-old, it’s probably not the best position for Benny. Sure, Roger is nearly as old, but Benny’s style is more finesse than bulldog. He’ll still be required to do some of this work, but it seems more beneficial to either let him be more in the attack, or all the way back. That said, Sporting’s more forward midfielders play relatively even with one another, almost like a right and left center mid. Felipe on the left, Roger on the right. Think of an inverted triangle with Ilie at the point on the bottom.
Defensive Midfielder (#6)
Think Ilie Sanchez. Obviously, if Ilie is healthy, this spot is his to play. The last two games though, he hasn’t been healthy enough to start (instead he came on in the second half). With Los Angeles Football Club, Benny played a lot more minutes at this role than is typical. It actually kind of makes sense as Feilhaber sees the game well and more importantly, it will free up Felipe to move up in the midfield.
It could be said, nearly as much as the team missed Ilie, it missed having a player like Felipe or Roger in the advanced midfield role. The last few games with Rowe/Busio/Croizet playing the more forward midfield spots, Sporting were lacking. When Gutierrez moved up (and Ilie came on), Sporting were a better team. Most would say it’s because of Ilie, and I won’t argue that, but it’s hard to know without seeing Gutierrez more forward with someone else behind him.
A Surprise Position?
Is it possible Benny plays somewhere else? Yeah, but probably not. Fullback has been depleted, but I’d argue he doesn’t have the pace to play there and his arrival likely frees up Croizet to spend some more time at left back (whether you like it or not).
He’s played center back in a pinch (and SKC just traded away Abdul Rwatubyaye for Benny) but that seems very unlikely.
As far as being a forward, that would be a surprise as well. He could play as a winger for a few minutes, but not over any sustained time as it’s not ideal. He’s definitely not a center forward, though he could probably play as a second striker if there was a formation change he could play underneath Krisztian Nemeth or Erik Hurtado (once healthy).
So Where Does He Play?
If I were Peter Vermes, I’d play him at defensive midfielder while Ilie is unhealthy. Benny is a player that knows PV’s system and can be trusted to play Ilie’s spot. Then Gutierrez is in his natural role and maybe Rowe (or Busio when he returns) and play the attacking midfield spot.
Otherwise, it’s the more attacking midfield option for Benny. Regardless, he probably shouldn’t be playing 90 minutes every time out in an effort to keep everyone more fresh and avoid further injuries. We should see pretty soon as it seems very likely Benny will be available this weekend against D.C. United.