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By Lauren Drewes Daniels
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"I felt like the residency program, I'd call it a surreal professional training environment," Ellinger says. "It's not the real pro environment where I can put the guys up against the first team and pros and they're going to get better that way."
Shea, at 22, is young by American sports standards, but he's a five-year pro. Internationally, he's seen as a veteran. He'd just be graduating college if he went to Wake Forest, but the window for him to be an international superstar was already closing when he took that pass against El Salvador. It may have closed a little more when the ball squirted away.
"Knowing Brek, he was embarrassed," Ellinger says. "It was a talented team expected to qualify easily. A lot of those players, if they let people down, they let the country down, they're embarrassed by it.
"The hope of going to the Olympics, it's a big deal. In this country, even with my own mom, I could say, 'I'm going to the World Cup, we made it to the World Cup, I'll be there coaching, blah blah blah.' 'Oh that's nice.' But, 'We made it to the Olympics.' For the average person in the U.S., that's the thing they put above all others."
So next week, Team USA will watch from home as the world's largest sport takes the world's largest stage. Shea, likely Team USA's best prospect, played as well as he could, gave everything he had. Everyone did. It wasn't enough.
That was more than three months ago. Three weeks later came the injury. Three weeks after that was his three-game suspension. Then he was left off the U.S. national team World Cup qualifying roster. He hasn't been himself, on the field or off, since.
"We didn't deserve it," Shea says, and he's right.
It's twilight in Dallas, and it's 100 degrees, but FC Dallas fans are still sucking in the hot, wet air as they brave Frisco's Main Street on their way to the stadium entrance. Most of them have on Dallas' red-and-white home stripes, and if there's a name on the back it's probably Shea's. Some of them, mostly the younger boys, but some grown men and women too, have the Shea faux hawks, or dyed platinum blonde hair.
After a loss against Houston, Dallas has matched its franchise record with 10 games without a win, and they're sitting at the bottom of the Western Conference. But today they're playing Carson, California's Chivas USA, the American iteration of a Mexican league team, and though they're still better than FC Dallas, it's only by a bit. Chivas are third from bottom of the Western Conference, and they're riddled with injuries.
More notably: Brek Shea is back.
His faux hawk is gelled up, he's got on his highlighter-yellow cleats, and during warm-ups he's the only player on the field with sweatpants on. When fans seem him, they cheer and scream and play their horns and beat their drums, but the stadium is barely half full. The excitement withers and dies in the summer sun.
The fans are trying, but it feels like a minor league game, a far cry from London, where Shea spent a few weeks last winter after his breakout season, practicing with Arsenal FC, one of the top teams in the world. Their 60,000-seat stadium is at capacity every week, and the team fights for the Champions League title every year. It's where virtually every soccer player all over the world, including Shea, dreams of playing.
"I want to play Champions League and I want to play in the World Cup," he says before the game. "I want to play good and test myself and be the best I can be."
Only a handful of American players have competed in the Champions League. And although Shea is one of the most athletically gifted prospects in the world, a winger who looks physically overqualified for the position, he remains, for now at least, a long shot to join that fraternity.
There's also the question of whether Shea, a young American star, should go abroad like fellow Texan Clint Dempsey, or if he has a duty to develop the sport in the United States, like the L.A. Galaxy's Landon Donovan. Dempsey, who plays in the English Premier League, is arguably the most accomplished American player ever. Donovan has only played brief competitive stints in Europe, but is more visible in the States. Kids grow up wanting to be like Donovan, not Dempsey.
When they announce the lineups, Shea's name gets called last, and 10,000 people scream at the sight of one of the worst team's best player. After one last spring, he lines up for the national anthem.
The first time Shea gets the ball, he'll look up and take a shot from 30 yards out that will just skim the crossbar. But that will be about it action-wise. Eventually, with a half hour left in the game, spectators will start filing out of the stadium as the game stutters toward a 0-0 draw, the sort of result Americans like to bemoan on their channel-surfing toward old footage of NFL games. For now, though, everyone just sings along, smiling, hands over chests as fireworks explode overhead, waiting to see what Shea can do.
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.