Gillette Stadium, in Foxborough, Mass., is about 3,000 miles away from UCLA’s campus, but on June 2, the Bruins were the toast of New England.
On an uncharacteristically rainy summer day, the Chicago Fire took on the New England Revolution in a Major League Soccer’s Eastern Conference showdown.
Three Revolution players ““ all former Bruins ““ combined to lead New England to a 2-0 victory. Midfielders Benny Feilhaber and Kelyn Rowe each put in a goal and assisted one another on each score, while goalkeeper Matt Reis tallied his second shutout of the season.
“That was a great moment,” said Rowe, who was drafted third overall in last spring’s draft.
“We know we all went to UCLA, and that was cool for both Benny and I to score. He and I have very similar games, and when we’re on the field, we always look for each other.”
Feilhaber and Rowe both placed perfect through balls, slipping passes in past the defense, to set up the other on their respective goals.
Their paths to New England shared some similarities as well, even though they are seven years apart in age.
Both went to UCLA for two years and played on the U.S. U-20 team before moving on to professional soccer.
Feilhaber, a Brazilian native, came to UCLA as a walk-on in 2003, but quickly became one of the Bruins’ most prolific scorers. During his final season, Feilhaber was third on the team in goals, playing from the midfield position.
His strong second season in Westwood, followed by a call-up to the U-20 team, launched him into a professional career in soccer.
“UCLA does a really good job of breeding a competitive environment,” Feilhaber said. “I came in as a walk-on, and I didn’t think about playing professionally too much, but I was pushed every day to get better, and that made me the player I am now.”
Rowe, unlike Feilhaber, came to UCLA in 2010 with plenty of hype. As a highly touted recruit, Rowe made an instant impact at UCLA where he started nearly every game during his two years on campus.
As a freshman, he scored seven goals and led the team in assists with 10, earning him the Pac-10 Freshman of the Year award and a first-team All-Pac-10 nod.
“UCLA was a big part of my progression as a soccer player,” Rowe said. “They treat us like pros. They made us battle for a spot every day, and they made sure we were practicing, lifting and eating right to get us ready for the next level.”
Rowe, who is in his first year of MLS play, is one of Feilhaber’s primary competitors at the midfield position, which has led to an entirely new experience for the rookie.
“Playing with Benny is like a dream come true,” Rowe said. “I used to look up to Benny as a player. It’s really cool to get to play with a guy like him who is that good; it’s really improving me as a player.”
Minutes have been limited thus far for Rowe as he tries to break into the MLS. Fortunately, Feilhaber has been a big part of his transition to the professional lifestyle.
“Benny is a great teammate, mentor and friend,” Rowe said.
“We are kind of at different stages in our lives right now because he just got engaged, and I’m still a 20-year-old kid. But we still cross paths as friends, and I just spent the Fourth of July at his apartment. We definitely are more than just teammates.”
Feilhaber and Rowe also share the experience of playing under current UCLA coach Jorge Salcedo, which they believe has improved their compatibility as teammates.
“Kelyn played under Jorge for two years where I only played for him one year, but we definitely have similar games, and I think Jorge had something to do with that,” Feilhaber said.
Reis, the eldest of the group by almost a decade, played at UCLA from 1994 to 1997 and won a national title as the starting goalkeeper. He played with Salcedo while at UCLA and on the Los Angeles Galaxy from 1999 to 2000.
“I have a little different point of view on Jorge then they do because I played with him,” Reis said of his former teammate. “He’s a great friend, and he has taken UCLA back to where it should be as one of the top collegiate programs in the country.”
Feilhaber, Reis and Rowe are three of 23 former Bruins in the MLS, leading all universities, which comes as no surprise to Reis.
“I’ve told every coach I have had so far to get as many UCLA players as possible because they’re the best ones out there,” Reis said. “I remember after the (Chicago) game (Benny, Kelyn and I) shared a laugh about the UCLA connection and how the Bruins just keep dominating.”