By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
His jaw clenches and unclenches, and he looks down into his sandwich. After a long moment he looks back up and the smile is gone.
"It's probably the hardest thing I've had to deal with," Shea says. "To date."
He's leaning over his tray now, but the food's long forgotten.
"My dream," Shea wrote on the drawing, "is to be in the Olympics."
He was four. The drawing was of him with a rainbow overhead. If it seems odd that a four-year-old could properly spell "Olympics," let alone announce his intention to participate, it wasn't. Not in the Shea family.
Dane Brekken "Brek" Shea was born February 28, 1990, in College Station to two ex-athletes. His mother, a tall, thin blonde named Kirstin Brekken, threw discus in high school and college. His father, Charlie, played wingback at Virginia Tech. They met at Texas A&M when Kirstin was studying for her master's in kinesiology. Charlie was a kinesiology Ph.D.
Brek's first word was "ball," the story goes. By the time he was five, he could throw a spiral, and when he put on his baseball glove to play catch with his uncle, Rolf Brekken, he could throw the ball on a rope.
"I'd buy him toys as a kid, but the only thing that excited him was a ball, a football or basketball or anything you could throw," Rolf says. "I got him a tie-dyed mountain biking shirt from West Virginia and he wore that until it was in rags."
He started playing soccer when he was 5. He was raw, didn't really know what he was doing, but he was bigger, faster and more athletic than everyone his age. So he played with boys a year older.
"What makes Brek most special is how dedicated he was at a young age," says his first youth coach, Elvis Takow.
Takow, an A&M student at the time, would hold practices at a park and play pickup with friends afterword. Shea always volunteered to play. There wasn't a soccer field, just an open lawn next to tennis courts that provided light after the sun went down. "If I said, Brek, let's go ping the ball around for two hours, he would go, 'OK,'" Takow says.
College Station is football country, though, and every semi-athletic male was supposed to play. So Shea played. As a high-school freshman he played both sides of the ball and returned kicks for JV, and kicked for the varsity squad.
He stayed with soccer, though, and by his freshman year he'd outgrown College Station's mediocre soccer club and was traveling 90 minutes south twice a week after school to Houston to play for Texans FC, a club team. He wasn't a great student, so his father bought books on tape for him to listen to as they drove. He'd return around 11:30 at night. On weekend game days, his parents would wake up at 5 a.m. to see Shea fully dressed, standing in their dark room, staring at them expectantly.
"OK," he'd say. "Time to go."
As Shea entered high school, United States Soccer was still largely irrelevant internationally. But the ambition was there: The United States had hosted the World Cup in 1994, and corporate America tasted for the first time the religious fervor fans brought to the sport.
Two years later, the United States Soccer Federation launched Major League Soccer. And two years after that, in 1998, the USSF announced Project 2010, a $50 million plan to host and win the World Cup by 2010, a scheme based at least partially on the belief that America had the world's best physical specimens. If we put 11 superior athletes on the field at once, executives seemed to think, how could we not win?
Given the world's head start, the plan was laughable, which quickly became obvious. So we hedged. The mission became to merely perform well in 2010, which we didn't.
To support and profit from Project 2010, the shoe companies got involved. Nike launched Project 40, which took the best players in the country and paid for them to jump to the MLS straight from high school, guaranteeing higher salaries than the meager league minimums, and a free education should their soccer careers fizzle. (Later, the initiative migrated to Adidas and became Generation adidas.) In 1999, the sports-marketing giant IMG agreed to house the Under-17 national team at its IMG Sports Academy in Bradenton, Florida, the prodigy factory that trains teenage phenoms.
"We tried to create an environment where they're training every day, where they're playing in tournaments," says John Ellinger, an FC Dallas assistant who coached the U-17 national team at the time.
Players would live there almost year-round and essentially be homeschooled, in classes for three hours a day with three, four, five other players. The top 20 youth soccer players in the country would go into the residency program and be treated as pros.
There were problems, though. Chiefly that nobody played. Americans looked upon soccer as "soft," and the sport was predominantly for middle- and upper-class white kids. The good clubs charged hundreds of dollars. Minorities couldn't play. Immigrants, even those for whom soccer was a part of their heritage, couldn't play. By Shea's freshman year, United States Soccer had basically carved a niche as the world's chief exporter of goalkeepers, big dudes who could use their hands.
US youth soccer lacks creative players that are only developed from playing on the streets and/or parks day after day for many years. Here, players are put on club teams at such a young age and learn the tactics and basics, but will never learn the magic that you see in Messi, Ronaldinho or Zidane.
Good write up, Mr. Howard. Our club doesn't get a lot of local press, and this is probably about the best piece I've read about FCD, Brek or US Soccer in general. Thanks for that.
This article was written several weeks ago and doesn't begin to mine the depth of Shea's current funk on the field and as of Wednesday night - his feud with the coach. Additionally, the dirty secret about Brek is that he has many of the tools, but the one he doesn't have is a "first touch". For those that don't care about soccer that is about as important in that sport as "first step speed" or "hand/eye coordination" is in others. When the ball arrives to Brek, he simply can't control it to the level needed to go to the next level.
But today he is a player that is even deeper in the doghouse with the coach, and now his teammates (who many of which are clearly starting to tire of his antics) than was reported at the time this was written. After being subbed out early in Wednesday night's match in San Jose, Brek barked at his coach and then sulked at the end of the bench. All after he played arguably his worst match in the FCD jersey. The team leader, Daniel Hernandez (a player who isn't exactly the coach's favorite himself these days after a poor Twitter session) said this about Brek, "Nobody likes to come out of a game. I don’t like to come out of a game. I’m pissed off when I come out of a game, or when I don’t play. But when things are not going well for you, or you’re not having a good game, and coach needs to make a change, you have to respect it. At this point in the season, we can’t have those breakdowns right now, because we need everybody. We need him. He’s one of the stars of our team, and we need him to step up with his leadership and his play. He’s obviously one of the best players in the country. In order for us to try to fight to get into the playoffs, we’re going to need him and everyone else, 100 percent.”
Brek is young, but there are many that worry that the kid has let the press go to his head. Many times it appears that he's far more concerned about his hair, tattoos, his look and his painting than achieving the next level of the sport - which isn't in Dallas btw - but before he can get there, he's got to do it here. Brek has potential, but soccer is littered with potential.
If they were really soccer hungry they'd make the drive, I do. When it was at the Cotton Bowl I went to games and they weren't exactly packing it in there. The season they moved to South Lake I did not go, I have my limits.
I don't think the problem is hype but expectations. By that I mean that people hear super star and assume they will be as good as Messi or Ronaldo. At this point I would be happy and what others should expect are more above average players like Dempsey or Donovan. Maybe in the next 10 years we can raise those expectations to players at the level of RVP, Sergio Aguero, Falcao, and other great but not yet Messi/Ronaldo level.
The biggest problem with soccer in the US is very weak youth development. Rather if one is to say the US is getting better than why have MLS teams been knocked out by "weak" teams from the Caribbean and Central America? Also many USMNT pundits were way to quick to predict regional US hegemony after a decade of good results, only to have Mexico come roaring back with string of impressive youth team results that have spanned for more than five years and solid senior team performances as well. Invest in youth development and it will pay dividends the problem is getting the clubs to set up the infrastructure. On a personal level I find it lamentable that Frisco is home to FC Dallas. Living in Dallas proper I don't appreciate driving all the way to the sticks to some bougie ass suburb to watch soccer. Lots of soccer hungry fans would gladly check out FC Dallas if they where in Dallas proper and pack the stadium way more than they do now. The Fair Park area would be a great area for a small stadium and an accompanying sports complex.
Thanks Greg for the awesome read. I appreciate you giving Brek and FC Dallas some much deserved exposure. Even though their record doesn't scream it, FCD is one of the most talented teams in the MLS. I'm beyond proud of them and appreciate their representation. Dallas till I Die!
Very well written and an interesting perspective on US soccer. One point of order, though: As a European who has watched and played soccer since I was able to stand up, I have to say the comment suggesting Shea is a veteran at 22 is ridiculous. It's accepted wisdom in the soccer world that outfield players generally don't hit their peak until around 28. Plus, Shea still has a shout of a good career overseas. Having watched him a few times, there's a lot of talent there. Needs to head east soon though.
Sitting in a NYC bar last night watching FC Dallas take on San Jose, I was reminded of what makes this club so gratifying (and often heartbreaking) to watch. They will win brilliantly or lose in a riveting blaze of glory. Coach Hyndman seems to encourage an exciting, attacking form of soccer. Shea's flair (even his impetuousness) is part of what makes this side easy to support, even if they're suffering in the standings. I'm thrilled to see FC Dallas get some more media exposure in the D/FW area - and I hope it's a trend that the Observer will continue to foster. This former Dallasite will continue watching this team from his local soccer bars in New York with great affection - even through the pain of their recent poor form.
Very nice read on an interesting player. Something the other media outlets never even have the foresight to do. Enjoyable, thanks.
Wow Greg. Great article. So very well-written. It's hard to write about sports, but this is a fascinating piece. I'm enjoy most sports and am a big fan of soccer. So more soccer or FC Dallas coverage would be great. If the Observer is a alternative mag, then I think it would be something worth looking in to. American soccer has become something of an alternative following and culture. I'm so sick of the Cowboys, Jerryworld, NBA in general and the like. I find myself always going back to the "beautiful game" and our local team. They've had rough season, but anyone who follows the team knows they've basically had the worst luck with injuries than any team I've ever followed.