By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
"I was picking from 60 kids to put a roster for a world championship," Ellinger says. "[Other countries were] picking from a pool of 600."
Over time, soccer made some inroads. The MLS expanded. The national team had some success scouting players through state all-star teams in the Olympic Development Program. And the residency program showed some promise, developing players such as Landon Donovan, Carlos Bocanegra and Damarcus Beasley. The 2004 Project 40 class also produced Freddy Adu, a 14-year-old Ghanaian who'd moved to the D.C. area with his family when he was 8 and was touted as "the next Pelé." That year he signed to D.C. United and became the youngest American to sign a pro team sports contract in more than a century.
The next fall, 1,500 miles away in Austin, there was a tournament. The under-17 national team was there, as well as Olympic Development teams from across the country. One of the national team's goalkeeping coaches was watching when he noticed one player, a lanky, 6-foot-1 forward.
"Who is that?" he asked a soccer mom watching the game.
Kirstin Shea turned and looked at the scout.
"That's my son."
Off the Dallas North Tollway and into North Dallas, make a few turns past shiny white Range Rovers and dusty brown men digging holes, and pull up to a large, sprawling brick house with a basketball hoop in the driveway. It's Shea's. A balding middle-aged man is checking the mailbox as I walk up: Shea's stepbrother, Kevin. He gives me a once over, decides he doesn't care and walks inside.
Shea lives here with Kevin, a friend-turned-agent and another good friend.
"It's like Entourage," says Eric Avila, Shea's former FC Dallas teammate and one of his best friends. "His older brother's even a good cook."
Shea moved to Dallas in 2008, when at 17 he was the MLS SuperDraft's second overall pick. He was the obvious choice. After that tournament in Austin, the national team had asked Shea to stay an extra day and play with them. He played the next day, and two weeks later, Shea got the call inviting him to Bradenton.
When his high-school football coaches found out, they were furious.
"I got a lot of crap from my coaches, saying I wouldn't go anywhere with soccer," Shea says. "I could run track and get a scholarship or play football and get a scholarship. Soccer," they told him, "wouldn't get me anywhere."
He packed their nay-saying away and lugged it to Bradenton, where in his two years at the national team residency he developed into one of the best players.
"Brek's obviously in the top one percent of all those guys who have gone through," Ellinger says. The 35 best players under 17 lived and trained at the IMG Academy at any one time, but the coaches made cuts every semester. Even though they were brothers there — Shea has a scar on his chest from when he and five other players tried to brand each other with hot metal in the shape of a cross; he flinched — it was extremely competitive. Players choked. Players got injured, exposed, homesick.
Shea didn't. Meanwhile, he filled out his lanky frame and turned himself into a starter.
"I didn't understand how good he was," his uncle Rolf says. "The extended family pretty much thought, 'Man, this is a really great opportunity, he's going to get to go play on the under-17 team, and he's going to go to college and then, like the rest of us, get a real job.'
"His dad's a Ph.D.," Rolf says. "His mom's got her master's. His aunt has her MBA, I have a Ph.D., my wife has a Ph.D. Getting a high-level education is ... well, it's what happens, right? So that's kind of what everyone thought — Brek would do this soccer thing, and he'd do well, and then he'd go to college on a full ride, and that'd be the end of it."
But Shea, never a good student, didn't want to go to college, even after he verbally committed to Wake Forest University.
"I didn't want to go to college to play soccer sometimes and go to school full-time," he says. "That's how I thought about it. I didn't think, I want to play soccer. I thought, I don't want to go to school. So I'm going to do this so I don't have to go to school."
So FC Dallas drafted him, and he moved into a townhouse near the stadium with his Johnny Drama and not much else. For a while it looked like his biggest challenge as a pro would be off the pitch.
He was from a small town, and he'd spent most of the last two years quarantined in a soccer laboratory. He says it was like going off to college early, but it doesn't exactly translate. He finished Bradenton without ever paying a bill or holding even a menial job. He didn't have a driver's license. When he moved to Dallas he bought a moped so he could ride across the street to the stadium. Avila had to teach him how to cook an egg.
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.