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Feilhaber going with the flow

His latest stop is US national team

Benny Feilhaber (center) will be in the lineup for the US tomorrow against Panama, but his future isn't as definitive. Benny Feilhaber (center) will be in the lineup for the US tomorrow against Panama, but his future isn't as definitive. (ARAM BOGHOSIAN/FOR THE GLOBE)

Benny Feilhaber has lived his soccer life on fast-forward for so long now that he has learned not to look ahead. "You always look back at the things that got you here," said one of the intriguing new faces on Uncle Sam's soccer team, "and how fast and crazy everything was."

In four years, the 22-year-old midfielder has gone from walking on at UCLA to playing in the World Youth Championships to starting for Hamburg in a Champions League match. Now, he's stepped into the lineup for the US team that will take on Panama in the Gold Cup quarterfinals tomorrow afternoon at Gillette Stadium.

From here, Feilhaber could go to Venezuela for the Copa America. Or he could return to Germany, where his future is in flux. Hamburg is coming off a disappointing Bundesliga season, during which Feilhaber was brought up, then sent down after a coaching change.

What happens next? Who knows? His club could keep shuttling him back and forth to the reserves. It could transfer him. It could loan him to another club. "It's an up-and-down sport," Feilhaber shrugged.

By now, the man is used to rapid geographical shifts. He was planning on going back to Los Angeles after the WYC two summers ago until Hamburg waved a contract at him. He was playing for the second team when some people got hurt and Feilhaber suddenly found himself coming off the bench against Arsenal and starting against Porto.

It was a rough time for Hamburg, which had trouble beating anybody, but it was a terrific opportunity for a young guy who didn't mind being chucked into a new environment and having to make his way. That's something of a Feilhaber family trait. His father's father was an Austrian who concluded in 1938 that it wasn't the best place to be Jewish and departed for Brazil, where Feilhaber's parents were born.

He grew up in Rio de Janeiro, speaking Portuguese and English and playing futsal , the five-a-side indoor game that develops quick feet and ball skills. Next stop was Scarsdale, N.Y., then Houston, then Cos Cob, Conn., then nearby Wilton, then Irvine, Calif. Always, Feilhaber had a ball at his foot.

His Irvine club team won the national championship. UCLA, though, was a huge step up. The Bruins were coming off a national title in 2003 and Feilhaber, who'd been lightly recruited, figured to warm the bench even if he made the roster. "Soccer was more like a bonus," he said. "I wanted to play, but it wasn't the biggest thing. Once I went to UCLA, though, all that changed."

Though his freshman season was cut short by mononucleosis, Feilhaber had made the jump from substitute to starter. Sigi Schmid, the US Under-20 coach, spotted him the next year and added him to the squad for the world tournament, where the Americans shocked everybody by upsetting eventual champion Argentina.

When Feilhaber held his own against Lionel Messi , the Albiceleste's biggest star, it got him noticed in a hurry. "He killed me a couple of times," he said, "but I also think I killed him a couple of times."

The US had barely been eliminated when several European clubs made offers. "I went to [teammate] Pat Ianni ," Feilhaber said, "and I said, 'Dude, I'm not going home with you guys.' "

Leaving UCLA was a big decision, but the chance to sign with Hamburg and jump-start a pro career at 20 was irresistible. So Feilhaber took the plunge and found himself living in Germany's second-largest city, whose residents couldn't figure how a guy named Feilhaber couldn't speak Deutsch.

"The first six months were tough," he said. "The culture, the language. That's a huge thing. Even for the guys who go to England, there's a culture shock." The on-field adjustment was a challenge, too. "You always test the new guy," said Feilhaber, who was the only Yank on the team. "They want to see how hard you are, how you are on the ball."

The practices, he quickly found, were more intense than the matches, with everybody jockeying for a lineup spot. "In matches, you're playing for the team," Feilhaber said. "In practice, you're playing to show the coach you should be playing."

For the first year, he practiced with the first team and played with the amateur squad. But when injuries struck and Feilhaber was called up last fall, manager Thomas Doll wasn't hesitant to toss him into the fast lane until the regulars returned.

As the season went sour, though (Hamburg was in the relegation zone as late as February), Doll was sacked and new man Huub Stevens sent Feilhaber down. "It's unfortunate how the season ended for me," he said. "It was kind of upsetting."

By then, though, he'd gotten his call-up to the US team, playing against Ecuador and Guatemala three days apart in March. Feilhaber, who came to the States when he was 6, was eligible to play for three countries.

Brazil would have been the longest of shots, but the Austrians came calling last year, dangling a passport that would have made Feilhaber much more attractive to clubs with quotas on non-European players. "I was more interested in having the passport than playing for Austria," he said. "I always wanted to play for the US."

With captain Claudio Reyna retired from the national team, there's a need for someone to fill his longtime role as the metronome of the midfield, establishing the tempo, holding the ball, providing the linkage. With his skills as a two-way player, Feilhaber eventually could be the man.

"Claudio was a huge player for the US," he said. "He anchored the midfield, he connected the defense with the offense. When you lose a guy like that from the national team, you look for someone who can fill in. I don't necessarily compare myself to him, but if I can do the stuff he could do, I'll be more than happy with myself."

So far, coach Bob Bradley has been pleased with what he's seen. "We continue to feel good about his development," said Bradley, who started Feilhaber in all three of the Gold Cup group matches. "Benny is getting more comfortable with the speed and the physical part of the game."

Feilhaber's approach hasn't changed since he walked on at UCLA -- make the roster, get on the field, then find a way to be a guy they depend on. That's still the challenge for him in Germany. "From what I'm hearing, Hamburg definitely doesn't want to sell me," he said. "But getting a loan might be a possibility."

It's a volatile business, he understands. Reyna was loaned from Bayer Leverkusen to Wolfsburg and it helped make his career. "There've been ups and downs," Benny Feilhaber said, "but I wouldn't change it for the world."

John Powers can be reached at jpowers@globe.com.

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