With a little luck here or there, It could all have been so very different for Brek Shea at Buck Shaw Stadium on Wednesday night.
In just the first minute of his FC Dallas side's match against the host San Jose Earthquakes, Shea saw his left-footed drive from point-blank range cleared off the line by 'Quakes midfielder Jeff Baca.
Then, just minutes after the start of the second half, Shea again had another effort saved off the line, again from Baca, this time after the Dallas winger/forward had nearly bundled his way into what would have been his fourth league goal of the season.
In between those two opportunities, however, came the further degradation of a Shea clearly not at the pinnacle of his powers.
He certainly had looked his dangerous self when these two teams had met just 11 days earlier in Frisco, Texas. Playing predominantly up front in Dallas's 4-5-1 formation, Shea had turned San Jose central defender Victor Bernardez this way and that in the 0-0 draw.
But this time, nothing was clicking, although Shea could not be faulted for attempting to build through industry.
Like the Portuguese megastar, Shea's method is perhaps best described as an earnest shuffle set to fast-forward, his arms remaining largely down by his sides as his feet churn beneath them.
It has the effect of making it seem as if Shea covers a lot of ground in a small amount of time, belying his less-than-searing pace.
But Shea's game has never been predicated on speed.
It is beguiling trickery and a canny nose for wrong-footing defenders, along with tight dribbling and a terrific nose for goal that helped make him a star in the past two MLS seasons, when he scored 16 times in league play for Dallas, thereby vaulting into the realm of superstardom afforded to precious few young U.S. players.
One of Shea's favorite moves, seen frequently on Wednesday night against San Jose, is a deft cut-back with his favored left foot.
When he's executing and firing on all cylinders, the move often sees defenders, who are thinking Shea will continue barreling downfield, rush to get in front of the winger.
That's when Shea turns himself at just the right moment, allowing the defender to crash by before he continues onward toward goal, this time by way of another route.
Yet for whatever reason against the Earthquakes—fatigue or opponents wising to his act—Shea was frequently dispossessed when he attempted that little move, with the ball scuttling out of play or into the path of a San Jose defender.
Shea was more dangerous when afforded room to run at defenders—he very nearly picked San Jose keeper Jon Busch off his line just seconds into the second half after a run down the left flank.
Glancing to gauge Busch's position, Shea chanced an outswinging left-footed curler that passed just beyond the far corner of goal and out of play.
It's that sort of vision and spontaneity that made Shea such a sensation in the first place. But those moments have passed into the realm of infrequency; which is loathe to a young starlet.
Speaking of Stardom...
There are those who resent Shea his far-flung notoriety, believing that the silky blond-haired (he currently sports the most distinctive mohawk north of Brazilian sensation Neymar, with his hair an amalgam of platinum blond mixed with earthy brown) No. 20 is undeserving of his rapid ascent to the forefront of U.S. soccer.
Those detractors relish these sorts of games, when Shea is clearly not at his best.
That much was made evident midway through the first half at Buck Shaw, when the raucous band of San Jose supporters—christened the "1906 Ultras," after the devastating San Francisco earthquake of that year—laid into Shea after he went down in the Earthquakes' penalty area, just in front of their section.
"We don't give a f--- about Brek Shea!" went the chant, again and again, rising forcefully until Shea dusted himself off and resumed play.
Shea's last real "contribution" of his otherwise forgettable night came in the 60th minute (he would be substituted just four minutes later), when he was called for a handball after San Jose defender Victor Bernardez's scuffed drive from a corner kick sprung up against his left arm.
San Jose forward Chris Wondolowski would miss the ensuing penalty, but that mattered little. Shea's frustration was evinced by his near-resignation after the penalty. But he would show shortly thereafter that he had no desire to leave the field.
A Busy Winter, a Tepid Start to the MLS Season
It has not been an easy few months for the 22-year-old FC Dallas midfielder.
Since bursting onto the scene in 2010, when his eye-catching, headline-grabbing and hair-raising exploits turned him into a near-overnight sensation, Shea's atmospheric rise has included call-ups to the men's national team as well as an invitation to train with English Premier League side Arsenal last winter.
After featuring for the USMNT during a set of friendlies against France and Slovenia in mid-November, Shea headed in London, where he spent a month with Arsene Wenger's side in what ESPN Soccernet described as "a bid to gain experience of the European game."
Shea came away beaming about his time spent in London Colney.
Profiled in ESPN the Magazine's NEXT issue, which features young athletes thought to be on the cusp of greatness, Shea told Luke Cyphers that, "Just seeing how quick Andrey Arshavin plays in small-sided games, or how smooth Robin van Persie is on his runs on the big pitch is really unbelievable."
A move to Europe that was talked about with some frequency in the past year suddenly flew to the front burner. Shea returned to Texas in December and joined up with the men's national team for a January training camp in what seemed destined to be an historic year.
After featuring for Jurgen Klinsmann's side in successive 1-0 victories over Venezuela and Panama on Jan. 21 and 25—Shea went the full 90 in both—the midfielder started in the Feb. 29 friendly 1-0 win over Italy in which Clint Dempsey got the winning goal.
That successful stint complete, Shea then joined up with the national U-23 side for the Olympic qualifying campaign in March.
So many games, so much training, so little time in between. Even for a 22-year-old's legs, Shea may have been burning the candle a bit too heavily.
Whatever the reason, the qualifying campaign appears to have signaled the start of Shea's current troubles.
In the quarterfinal match against El Salvador, Shea's profligacy saw him caught off the ball in the final moments. With his side nursing a 3-2 advantage, it was hardly the time to lose possession.
The ensuing counterattack led to El Salvador's game-tying goal, which knocked the U.S. out of the competition and denied them participation in the London Olympics.
Shea could hardly be scapegoated for the result—he'd provided the assist to Terrence Boyd to open the scoring—but the lapse in concentration was worrisome.
That defeat came on March 26.
Shea thus had little time to rest before he returned to the FC Dallas ranks, as the MLS season had already begun on March 11.
Head coach Schellas Hyndman penciled Shea into his starting lineup for a March 30 game against DC United—just four days after the El Salvador match—and played Shea the whole 90 minutes in a 4-1 defeat that had been sown up by the 73rd minute, when United scored their last goal.
A little over a month after being back playing in MLS, Shea had succumbed to turf toe, a condition he aggravated in early May.
Hyndman noted that the injury was severe enough to keep Shea from practicing, but there the winger was on May 12, playing in a game against Columbus Crew that would see his antics result in a three-game suspension. After a questionable call, he lashed out, flicking the ball up to himself and volleying at one of the assistant referees, hitting him in the abdomen.
The ban was a blessing in disguise, of sorts, as it finally gave Shea time to rehabilitate his toe over the three weeks he was kept out of play.
But his temper had gotten the best of him—something that would surface once more against San Jose.
That suspension coincided with the last round of fixtures for the U.S. national team, which played five games (three friendlies, two World Cup qualifiers) from late May to early June.
Perhaps due to his less-than-stellar form, his injury or to his comportment, Shea was not called up by Klinsmann for the games.
"We have watched Brek during the last few months, and given his performances and some of the other issues we felt he should be on the standby list," Klinsmann said in response to questions about the omission to the 27-man roster for the late May camp.
"He’s still a young player with a lot of talent, and also a lot to learn."
A Rush of Blood to the Head in San Jose
When Shea saw his number pop up on the fourth referee's black board, signaling his imminent removal in that 64th minute at Buck Shaw, his face contorted into an unholy mix of disbelief and disdain.
He cast a long, quizzical look at Hyndman before finally, reluctantly, trudging off the field.
When he got to the sideline, he shot some choice words at his manager, who, clearly taken aback, merely shrugged and cast his attention back to the game as one of his assistants shepherded Shea away from the area.
Shea remained standing on the edge of the Dallas bench, away from everyone, every so often looking to his right toward Hyndman, every so often switching his pose just so. He waited almost five minutes before donning his warm-up jacket.
Then, he took a seat, hunching forward as he draped a Gatorade towel over his head, where it would remain for the rest of the game and immediately afterward, shielding his iconic mane from view.
A trainer came to him with a bag of ice and some elasto-tape, but Shea waved him away, turning his attention back toward the play.
He would move nary an inch from his bent-forward position on the bench for the remainder of the encounter.
When Dallas forward Fabian Castillo slid in very late on Earthquakes defender Justin Morrow with just 10 minutes remaining in the game, resulting in a brief scrum between the two players, who were quickly joined by teammates on either side, Shea's left hand grabbed the advertising board in front of him, as if he were readying himself to vault onto the field.
But the flaring tempers quickly simmered, and Shea's hand fell limply by his side once more.
Dallas had a chance to tie the game up at 2-2 in stoppage time, when left-back Zach Loyd drew a penalty.
Shea, whom Hyndman would say afterward is normally the first choice when it comes to taking spot-kicks, immediately shot a thousand-yard glare in his coach's direction, as if this penalty were confirmation that his substitution was ill-advised.
Considering that defender Jair Benitez would sky his penalty over the crossbar, condemning FC Dallas to their 10th defeat of the season (they are currently in eighth place in the Western Conference standings), there may have been a measure of truth to Shea's appeal.
According to ESPN soccer reporter Jeff Carlisle, Hyndman declined to make Shea available for comment after the game, a decision which may draw a fine from MLS.
Carlisle spoke to Hyndman after the game, who offered a thinly veiled disapproval of his star's antics on the evening.
"I think it's better that I don't make any comments about (Shea's) performance," Hyndman said. When Carlisle inquired what Shea had said to him when he was substituted, Hyndman responded, "I think it's probably better I don't make that comment, either."
"I thought (Shea) was very disrespectful, not only just to Schellas, but I thought to the rest of the team," Dallas captain Daniel Hernandez told Carlisle.
"He's a young guy still, but this shows the immaturity there in him, and I think a lack of professionalism that right now, at this point in the season, the way things have been going for us, we can't have."
Hernandez went on to call Shea one of the stars of the team, and said Dallas will need a Brek Shea firing on all cylinders if they are to make any push for the playoffs this season.
But on Wednesday night, that playoff dream slipped a bit further out of reach. Speaking after, Loyd promised "to keep showing up, keep working hard so it’s important we get results and try and grab that fifth spot for the playoffs."
One wonders if an irreparable fissure is simply widening, however.
Before the match, you wouldn't have known if from watching Shea. Going through the warm-up preparations, the young winger was horsing around with teammates, jumping on backs after a possession drill had ended.
That smile quickly turned, however, into something far more beleaguered.