Brek Shea and the Making of an American Soccer Star*

*If there's even such a thing.

March 27: The American U-23 national team versus El Salvador, in the final game of the 2012 London Olympics qualifiers' group stage. Only a win would keep Team USA's hopes alive.

The first time Shea got the ball, he received a bouncing throw-in on the left side, deep in El Salvador's half. As he felt pressure from a defender, he volleyed the ball over the Salvadoran's head, then took one touch to control the ball when it returned to earth.

As the ball descended, the defender recovered to force Shea out of bounds. That's when Shea, facing the sideline, cut a full 180 degrees inside before muscling the defender to the turf. Two more Salvadorans closed on Shea. They never had a chance.

Shea stands out as freakishly tall - and fast, and strong - on a soccer field.
Danny Fulgencio
Shea stands out as freakishly tall - and fast, and strong - on a soccer field.
The moment he started getting minutes, Shea became a fan favorite. And he reciprocated by signing every autograph.
Danny Fulgencio
The moment he started getting minutes, Shea became a fan favorite. And he reciprocated by signing every autograph.

With his right foot, he sliced the ball 90 degrees toward the end line, turned and accelerated away, leaving them behind. He looked up and saw an American jersey streaking toward the net and crossed a perfect ball to his teammate, who volleyed the ball into the roof of the net. Fifty-nine seconds into the match and Shea had Team USA up 1-0. It looked unfair.

But four minutes into extra time, it was still close, 3-2, with the Americans winning and waiting for the clock to die. Shea got the ball on the left sideline in America's half, about 50 yards from his own goal. He tried to play a pass forward to a teammate, to keep the ball on American feet until the whistle blew, but it rolled straight to a Salvadoran, who quickly controlled the ball before rolling a pass back upfield. There was a scramble for the ball, then it squirted out in the middle of the field to a Salvadoran still about 50 yards from goal. The clock read 94:06.

The Salvadoran dribbled forward and diagonally to the left, almost away from Team USA's goal, directly toward three waiting American defenders. At 94:10, just as the defenders broke toward him, the Salvadoran fired a desperate shot, well struck but poorly placed, that skimmed inches off the grass right toward the American goalkeeper, who had already crouched and begun to dive to the near post.

At 94:11, a yard before the ball got to the outstretched and waiting goalkeeper, the ball bounced, slightly changing its trajectory, then hit the keeper's hands. It looked like an easy save, but then the ball kept going, this time up and up, eight, nine feet in the air, above the crossbar of the goal, then it hung and fell back to earth, bounced just inside the goal line, and at 94:13, skipped into the back of the net.

"What did you think when that happened?"

"I don't know," Shea would say later, at the sub shop. "I didn't think it was real."

It's at this point that the numb panic sets in, when the game is over and the brain shuts off, but the limbs still work. The American players knew it was over, their parents in the stands knew it was over, their head coach screaming "Get the ball! Get the ball!" knew it was over, and the Salvadorans who just 15 seconds earlier thought it was over knew it was over.

Finally the ref blew his whistle, two short ones followed by a long one, and that's when the brain turned back on and the limbs shut off, when the American players collapsed in tears and racked sobs as the Salvadoran substitutes stormed the field, skipping around the littered bodies.

It was over. Team USA would not be going to the Olympics, ousted on their own field by a nation with as many people as the state of Maryland.

The media started to point fingers. Some pointed to the goalkeeper. Many pointed to Shea. Why didn't he just clear the ball down the field? Why'd he have to turn it over? If Shea simply hoofed the ball out of his own half, or out of play, the ref likely would've ended the game.

The reality is tougher to swallow. Because even though it aligns with everything we know about the sport in our country, it goes against everything we're taught to feel about our country. The reality is, a team that deserved to make the Olympics would've made it out of the round regardless of a fluke loss to El Salvador, because a team that deserved to make the Olympics wouldn't have lost to Canada 2-0 in the game before. After 14 years and $50 million, the Americans just weren't good enough.

Their hopes had ended, in some ways, in Bradenton.

The residency program's greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. By identifying and grouping the best 35 young players together, the team is improving as a core, but that core invariably hits a ceiling. Other countries' top players go train with their countries' best pro teams — a British phenom with Manchester United, a Spanish one with Real Madrid. Properly seasoned, they become starters on their leagues' best teams by the time they're 18 or 19. The world's current top player, Lionel Messi, won the World Player of the Year award at 21.

But American players aren't playing against anyone better. Recent changes could help remedy this: The academy season has been lengthened, and top players will now be set up with MLS teams. But still, Team USA has never won a major international tournament. More telling: The United States has never even produced a George Best. Best, a Northern Ireland player, was a fluke, an outlier, born and raised in what might be a worse soccer country than the United States. He never played in a World Cup, but because of his youth in the Manchester United academy, he developed into one of the best soccer players of all time. The United States, a country of more than 300 million people, has yet to even accidentally create a single international star.

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15 comments
mickey
mickey

damn.....i'd eat that with a spoon! hawt!

charly
charly

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.

lowryj1
lowryj1

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. 

OriginalBurnFan1996
OriginalBurnFan1996

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.

jason
jason

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.

Luis Escobar
Luis Escobar

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.

Luis Escobar
Luis Escobar

I would say any media coverage for any MLS team is good for us all lol

El Regio Pesado
El Regio Pesado

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.

Kelly Schneider
Kelly Schneider

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!

Bryan
Bryan

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.

Timothy Winning Voyles
Timothy Winning Voyles

Glad to see some more media coverage on the team, we fans have been begging for more interest!

Ike Allen
Ike Allen

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.

Guest
Guest

Very nice read on an interesting player. Something the other media outlets never even have the foresight to do. Enjoyable, thanks.

S Parker
S Parker

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.

mickey
mickey

we want a full frontal, Shea!

 
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