Brek Shea and the Making of an American Soccer Star*
People die in this weather. But everyone — the videographers, the media interns, the public relations director, the journalist — is out here sweating through their shirts in the FC Dallas Stadium parking lot because soonish, Brek Shea, the hometown kid whose face fills a poster hanging from the stadium, whose name is on the backs of hundreds of jerseys at every home game, who at 22 (and 21 and 20) has been called "the future of American soccer," is going to drive over a pile of oranges.
FC Dallas is trying to promote its upcoming derby against in-state rivals the Houston Dynamo, whose mascot for some reason is an orange. Shea has a toe injury and won't play, but nobody knows that. All they know is that Shea can play, is eligible, that is, for the first time since more than a month ago, when he got called for a foul and kicked the ball into the nuts of the assistant referee. The ref took it like a pro, but Shea got slapped with a three-game suspension anyway.
Shea walks out and he's the only one not sweating. He's 6-foot-4, 180 pounds, less than five percent of it body fat, and even through his baggy T-shirt everyone can see he's got arms like nautical ropes. He looks like the happy result of a science experiment, if the scientists were among the growing segment of Americans who wish their country were better at soccer and who broke into a genetics lab to do something about it.
Shea's trademark platinum-blonde faux hawk (when it's not dyed red, or worn long, or in cornrows) looks good, as it usually does, and he's wearing highlighter-orange sunglasses to match his highlighter-orange shoes. He's a salad bowl of stereotypes: surfer and skater and frat boy, and with his religious and motivational tattoos, like the verse from Phillipians 4:13 on his ribs and "Believe" on his calf, you can add badass and church boy, too. He's a marketer's wet dream.
He's a Texas boy, too, so naturally he drives an old yellow Bronco that he bought on a whim before ripping off the doors and the hood. But then the drive shaft fell out, so today, no Bronco. He's in his stepbrother Kevin's shiny new Ford pickup instead.
"They say they don't flip," Shea says as we climb in. To prove it, he does a doughnut, and the Ford definitely feels like it's going to flip, but it doesn't. A PR guy gets in now and puts on the team mascot's giant bull head and hangs halfway out the window, and Shea accelerates up to the orange pile, aiming his left tire at the citrus.
He backs up and stops in the middle of the peel-and-pulp killing field, and then, with his foot on the brake, he hits the gas and fruit goes flying in his wake, and everyone cheers. The team's PR director — a cheerful young woman who doubles as one of Shea's best friends, his second mom, his third sister and his one-man security detail — gets in, and we listen to Wiz Khalifa as he drives across the street to a sandwich shop called Firehouse Subs. The media guys stay behind to scrape orange slush off the ground.
Shea's been eating here since May 14, 2010, the day before he scored his first Major League Soccer goal. That was before people knew what to do with this freak of nature, when he came off the bench as a center back, or center midfielder, or wherever else the team needed him. It was before he moved to the left wing and ran roughshod through the 2011 MLS season, before he was voted to the All-Star team, then first-team all-league, then second runner up in the MVP race, and before Team USA coach Jürgen Klinsmann took notice and, for a while anyway, Shea was among Team USA's leaders in playing time.
He's been coming here since before he was voted the 2011 U.S. Soccer young male athlete of the year, before people started comparing him to American players like Landon Donovan and Jozy Altidore and international stars like Cristiano Ronaldo and his favorite player, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, although he may have been blessed with more physical tools than any of them.
Still, this is soccer in America, so he gets only a little attention when we walk in. An employee asks him to sign a Brek Shea bobblehead. A few kids point. Then his Adidas commercial comes on. He looks up at it critically, studying himself on the restaurant's flatscreens as customers look at the TV, and then to him, and then back to the TV.
"That one scene took like six hours to shoot," he says of the 30-second clip. "Just the one part, where it shows me putting my hand in the shoe. I couldn't hold the shoe right, I guess."
He talks for a while about growing up in the backwoods of Bryan, Texas, about his painting hobby, about his family, about his signature hairstyles ("Long hair is the shit"). He's a five-year pro, though, on national teams since he was 15, so he answers the questions he wants to answer and deflects the ones he doesn't. Then come the questions about that El Salvador game, the one where Team USA failed to qualify for the 2012 London Olympics, the meltdown that started Shea's current meltdown of being hurt and angry, of not being called up to the national team for the first time since Klinsmann was named head coach.
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.
"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.
"We had too much money to spend," Avila, who was drafted that same year, says of their rookie Generation Adidas contracts, which were for $78,000. "We didn't know what to do with all of it."
For a while it looked like Shea would have a promising start to his career. Then FC Dallas lost 5-0 and everyone got fired. They sacked Shea's doting head coach, Steve Morrow, and brought in Schellas Hyndman from SMU, a stern-looking man with skin like a catcher's mitt. They didn't get along.
"Me and Avi were rookies for like three years," Shea says. Before practices, they were always the ones who started in the middle during games of keepaway, an honor veterans reserve for the team's youngest players. When the team traveled, Shea and Avila couldn't go with them to bars after games. The veterans even tried to assign them book reports. (Shea was assigned To Kill a Mockingbird, which he never read.)
Shea tore his meniscus twice in his first two seasons. When he could play, he didn't start, and even though he came into the league as a wing, Hyndman used him all over the field because he was so athletic.
Finally, in 2010, Shea went to his agent.
"I wanted to leave," he says. But the MLS owns all of its teams and has the last say on player transactions. Shea already had hundreds of thousands of dollars invested into him through residency and MLS salary. He couldn't sit.
So instead, Shea says, Hyndman got a call from the commissioner.
"The league told FC Dallas, 'You have to either play him, sell him or trade him," Shea says. "If I had never said anything, I would've never played." (Hyndmann deflects questions about the incident, saying simply that Shea was a good player.)
He played in the next game after another forward got hurt, and by the time FC Dallas reached the league championship that year, Shea had established himself as one of its main threats — even as his teammate David Ferreira, a 5-foot-4 Colombian attacking midfielder, won MVP. When Ferreira went down early in the 2011 season, Shea went nuts, racking up 10 goals and three assists.
"At first, it was like, 'Give the ball to David!'" says Avila, now with Toronto FC. "Then suddenly, it was like, 'Give the ball to Brek!'"
Fans fell in love with the Bryan boy. He was exciting, flamboyant, not afraid to take defenders one-on-one or shoot from long distances. He signed every autograph after games. He was handsome and tall and had pretty hair and a Texas accent when the MLS' best players were Latino, its biggest stars an English guy with a posh accent and a black guy with a French one.
And so, here he is, the face of the franchise, the guy the team's PR director attaches herself to when the rare reporter comes around. She greets me when I walk into his house and, with help from Shea's Husky, guides me to the team's missing star, who is collapsed into a couch on the far side of the living room.
The MLS awarded Shea a $354,000 contract for the 2012 season, and he's got a reputation as an impulse spender. But the only hint of excess are the two flatscreens mounted side-by-side on one wall. One is turned to SportsCenter.
Cribs this is not. Colorful abstract paintings adorn the walls, but they're all Shea's, the end products of his stress-relief sessions in the garage. There's also an expensive pool table, a gift from an old teammate. That's about it. Shea's contract is among the highest in the league — and $150,00 less than that of the NBA's lowest-paid rookie. Some of the world's best soccer players make Shea's salary in a week.
He is sponsored by Adidas, and he does have a watch sponsorship, his own Deuce Brand "Free Bird" edition along with Portland Trailblazer Nolan Smith and street-baller Grayson "The Professor" Boucher. But the house feels more like a frat house than a one-percenter's, which is probably why multi-sport athletes go on to play basketball, football or baseball. With a couple extreme exceptions, there just isn't that much money to be made in American soccer.
All the lights are off in the living room, and when I approach, Shea stays slumped in the corner, his injured left foot outstretched, arms folded in over his chest. When I sit down, the PR director takes a seat on the other side, close enough to intervene should I try to pull anything. It's an uncomfortable sandwich, but I lean over, reach out my hand.
"What's going on?" I ask. "How's the season going?"
He looks at me for a second, then shrugs. "Ups and downs."
And that's how it is for a while. He's leaning back into the couch, grunting or nodding, and I'm leaning forward, pointing to his tattoos and asking what each one means, and the PR director is leaning forward, pontificating over my shoulder and intercepting questions when she can. When I ask about the Olympics, his face darkens and he deflects. It's about then that the PR woman decides to give me a tour, and walks me past Shea's albino rat, Vinny, and into the kitchen. Shea stays behind, sunken into the couch, brooding.
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.
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.
"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.
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