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Godfrey's Column

Brek Shea Then and Now: Is He Ready for the EPL?

With a big move to Stoke City in the works, American Soccer Now editor-in-chief John Godfrey looks back at the Brek Shea of 2011, and ahead to the Brek Shea of 2013 and beyond.
BY John Godfrey Posted
January 23, 2013
4:30 AM
Around this time last year I was in Panama City on assignment to write a few soccer pieces for the New York Times.

My wife and I were exploring, and falling hard for, Panama's many wonders. Jurgen Klinsmann was getting his first taste of coaching a team in Central America. And Brek Shea was still riding high on a brilliant 2011 campaign that saw him earn Major League Soccer plaudits, U.S. national team minutes, and a trial with English Premier League club Arsenal.

Prior to the U.S.-Panama match (which the U.S. won, 1-0) I got a chance to sit down with Shea at the Hotel El Panama to talk soccer, art, and ambition. He was a bit closed off at first, but opened up after we chatted about his artwork. And he clearly still felt residual excitement about his trial with Arsenal.

At one point I asked Shea how he felt training alongside the likes of Thomas Vermaelen, Gervinho, and Robin van Persie. Was he intimidated? Was he overmatched? Or did he feel he could keep up with these stars? Did he feel like he could play with them?

Modest by nature and wary of the press, Shea thought about the question for a moment, smiled sheepishly, and said, "I could play with them."

It was a telling moment in our chat—and it seems even more so now when you consider the problems Shea encountered in 2012. He had run-ins with his coach at FC Dallas. He lashed out at an assistant referee. He suffered a foot injury. And he dropped out of favor with the national team.

But Shea knows he can run with big boys. He knows it. Still just 22, his career is on the upswing, and Shea knows that too.

Due to a scheduling kerfuffle, the article below never ran in the New York Times. (But they did pay my full fee, which was nice.) We're running it here and now because 1) we can and 2) because Shea's potential move to Stoke City is a reminder that, despite a star-crossed 2012 campaign, there was a time not that long ago when he was the Next Big Thing in American soccer.

Who's to say Shea won't return to that same high level in 2013? Not us. Not me. In fact, I expect it.

Here's the piece I wrote last year.

PANAMA CITY, PANAMA—Brek Shea hails from Texas, so it should come as no surprise that he has a big game, big dreams, and even bigger hair. In 2011, Shea also had a big year. Huge, actually.

Just last week U.S. Soccer named Shea its 2011 Young Male Athlete of the Year, a prestigious award previously won by the likes of Landon Donovan (2000), Jozy Altidore (2006) and Michael Bradley (2007).

Shea clearly deserved the honor. The 6’3” 188-pound left wing enjoyed a breakout season with FC Dallas, scoring 11 goals, making the M.L.S. Best XI team, and being named a finalist for league MVP. The College Station, Texas, native also prospered with the U.S. national team: He has performed consistently well and is the only player to see action in all eight games since Jurgen Klinsmann took over in July.

Shea will likely make his ninth consecutive appearance tonight [1/25/12] when the United States plays Panama in an exhibition match at 8:30 Eastern in Estadio Rommel Fernandez in Panama City.

Shea’s one-word game plan for the match: “Win.”

“Like a lot of teams down here [in Central America], Panama is scrappy,” Shea continued. “It’s going to be a hard game and a rough game, but if we play our game we should win.”

With a 3-2 victory over Slovenia in November and a 1-0 defeat of Venezuela on Saturday, the U.S. national team is enjoying its first winning streak under Klinsmann. Shea nearly scored twice against Venezuela, but his 20th-minute strike went wide and Venezuela goalkeeper Jose Morales made a fantastic save on Shea’s sharp header three minutes later.

Shea, a speedy attack-minded player who is clever with the ball at his feet, is still goalless for the U.S. national team after 10 appearances. He is eager to put one in the back of the net for his country.

“The same thing happened when I started playing in M.L.S.,” he recalled, his light blue eyes growing a bit wider as he spoke. “I couldn’t get my first goal. But once I finally did score I got a couple more right away. I don’t know why, but it just seemed easier after that.”

“Once I get that first one for the national team, hopefully I can get some more.”

Klinsmann seems confident that Shea will start scoring in the near future.

“He’s a special talent, no doubt,” Klinsmann said after Tuesday’s practice. “What he needs is consistency, he needs to work 24/7 on what he’s doing, he needs to improve on many levels. But he has a lot of talent and that’s why there are European clubs looking at him.

“I enjoy a lot working with him.”

When a reporter mentioned that Shea came within a few inches of scoring his first national team goal against Venezuela, Klinsmann smiled and said, “Hopefully he gets much closer tomorrow night. That would be nice.”

Beyond the importance Shea places on getting that first tally, he believes there is another factor contributing to his recent success: his artwork. A year-and-a-half ago Shea set up an art studio in his garage and often unwinds by painting.

“Sometimes I’ll spend all day in there,” Shea said, “from the end of practice until night, all by myself. Soccer can be demanding. With my art, I can just do whatever I want and relax.”

“It helps me take my mind off things,” he said. “I think it’s why I’ve had a good year.”

Though it started as a hobby, Shea has turned painting into both a charity fundraising tool and a fledgling business. He first realized he was onto something when friends would come to his house and periodically walk off with his vivid, colorful, abstract work. Soon afterward family members started asking Shea for his paintings as gifts.

“I filled up my house with artwork and then I started noticing that they were disappearing,” he said with a laugh.

Last June, Shea sold 14 works during his “Controlled Chaos” art show, raising $10,000 for the FC Dallas Foundation and America Scores. Now Shea sells some of his work through a Web site, www.leftfootstudio.com, he established with his brother.

Whether expressing his creativity on a canvass or by darting around a soccer pitch, Shea believes he performs at his best when his mind is quiet.

“When I have my best games, I’m not thinking,” he said.

“Sometimes I’ll go back after a game and watch the tape and say to myself, ‘I did that? I scored that goal? I dribbled by people like that’?

“I’ll do the same thing with my artwork. I’ll paint it and then go away. And when I come back, I’ll look at a piece that I really like and say, ‘I did that?’

“It’s almost like I don’t remember doing it. It’s like you just free your consciousness. You don’t let thinking get in the way. You just do it.”

Shea’s Surrealism-meets-Nike approach continues to pay dividends. He capped off his remarkable 2011 with a brief training stint with Arsenal of the English Premier League, where he got to practice alongside superstars such as Robin van Persie and Andrey Arshavin.

“I had a blast,” Shea said. “It was the middle of the season when I joined them for training and they could have said, ‘Who’s this kid’? But everyone was awesome. Players talked to me and helped me out and it was a really positive environment.”

“I talked to Arsene Wenger pretty much every day at practice. You look at him on TV and he always looks so serious. I thought he was going to be the meanest guy in the world but he was the nicest guy.”

Not surprisingly, Shea would love to play in Europe some day. He hesitated to name a specific team but when pressed to imagine a perfect scenario, he relented.

“If we’re fantasizing here, Arsenal would be awesome because I feel like I know those guys now and I had a great time there,” he said.

For now, Shea is focused on tonight’s match against Panama, to be followed up in rapid succession by Olympic qualifying, the M.L.S. regular season and World Cup qualifying. His 2011 was outstanding; his 2012 looks to be extremely busy.

“You can’t be satisfied,” he said. “I want to go to the World Cup. I want to be part of this team for a long time. I want to keep doing better and better. I want to be one of the big names on the team and every time we play, I want the other team to worry about me being a threat.”

What do you think of Shea's potential move to Stoke City? Do you think he's ready? Will he be a contributor on World Cup qualifying? Share your thoughts below.

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