Brek Shea: Why Newest US Soccer Phenom Should Hold off on Move to Europe

Matthew Snyder@schnides14Analyst IIIOctober 20, 2011

FC Dallas midfielder Brek Shea has enjoyed a meteoric rise in popularity over the past couple of months.

The MLS star, previously an unknown entity except among the most die-hard circles of American soccer fandom, has turned in a slew of successful performances for the U.S. national team since August.

Shea, who came on as a substitute against Mexico in an Aug. 10 friendly, was one of the few bright lights in what was an altogether dreary affair that marked Jurgen Klinsmann's first competitive match at the helm of the U.S. team.

America wastes little time in crowning the next "it" player, and soccer is certainly not exempt from the hype-dom. Enter Shea, the newest phenomenon.

Over the past decade, we've seen talented young players such as Freddy Adu and Jozy Altidore bandied about as the saviors of the USMNT, only to watch them fall far short of the lofty expectations hanging over them like million-pound anchors.

While no one forced Adu to start playing in the MLS at 14, or Altidore at 16, the media furor that engulfed those two players is undeniable. It may have even hurt both players' potential. Either way, neither has become the game-changer we expected them to be at this point in their careers.

Both Adu and Altidore departed the MLS for Europe during their teens, eager to ply their trade at the highest level and enticed by the bigger contracts and massive stadiums filled to the brim with passionate supporters.

Like Landon Donovan before them, however, they've found it to be inherently tough going—nigh impossible from Adu's standpoint—to find consistent playing time in their new environs halfway around the world.

Adu has pinballed about the Old Continent since moving to Benfica (a traditional Portuguese power) in 2007. A peripatetic tenure abroad is an easy marker of a player who is deemed surplus to requirements at his official club—unable to crack the regular team, he is thus offloaded onto successive loan stints, where he must try and impress his club's coaches from afar.

The Ghanaian-born midfielder made only 11 appearances for Benfica's senior side in the span of four years, and was loaned out four separate times before finally returning this past year to MLS, where he currently plies his trade with the Philadelphia Union.

Shea, 21, is three years older than Adu was when he made the jump from America, but the fact remains that Shea's talent, while undeniable, in no way assures him a sure-fire role with Europe's top clubs.

If he transfers to, say, Inter Milan or Manchester United—two teams who have had their names mentioned in conjunction with Shea recently—is there any discernible chance that Shea could crack those teams' starting lineups anytime soon?

Perhaps, one need only look at Javier Hernandez's superb debut season at Old Trafford in 2010-11, when the Mexican went from an unknown striker to worldwide phenomenon in the span of a year. But there are few other cases to reinforce that outlier.

Donovan never enjoyed success with Bayer Leverkusen.
Donovan never enjoyed success with Bayer Leverkusen.Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Trading the MLS for Europe would require a grace period for Shea to acclimate to the faster style of play, dominated by superior players than the likes of those he'd seen stateside.

Perhaps the cautionary tale of Landon Donovan is more suitable for this context. Fresh off a sterling youth career, Donovan moved to German power Bayer Leverkusen in 1999 at the tender age of 17.

The American phenom never cracked the first team there, and spoke to Sports Illustrated writer Joe Posnanski in 2010 about how that painful experience had nearly broken his desire to keep playing.

Sure, the money is nice, but there comes a point where even if you're raking in the dough, languishing in the lesser divisions in Europe becomes infinitely depressing. You ask yourself if it's really worth it.

Needless to say, it was in the MLS that Donovan found salvation, first with the San Jose Earthquakes, whom he joined on a loan move in 2001 (he won the MLS Cup with SJ that year), and then with the LA Galaxy—his current employers, a side he integrated after trying again (in vain) to make it work with Leverkusen in another spell in 2004.

After several highly successful seasons in MLS, Donovan did make another foray into European football in 2010, when English Premier League side Everton snapped him up on a loan deal. This time, at a wizened 27 years of age, he was ready to contribute at the highest level of European football.

After so many stops and starts to his European career (Donovan had failed to make an impact during an '09 loan deal with Bayern Munich, who declined to pick up his option), America's current No. 10 and all-time leading scorer, with 46 goals at the international level, thrived with Everton.

Adu with Benfica.
Adu with Benfica.Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

His first appearance for the Toffees came in a bitingly cold Jan. 2010 match away to Arsenal, in which he provided an assist off an excellent corner kick.

Donovan was dynamic on the right wing for Everton for the rest of the season, and so impressed David Moyes that the Scottish-born Everton boss has since made repeated attempts to reacquire Donovan's services.

Are you listening, Brek Shea? If the Dallas superstar makes his switch now, he might be setting himself up for years of unhappiness.

Sure, he might make a dent with an English side, like Jonathan Spector (Birmingham City) or Eric Lichaj (Aston Villa). But neither of those players has enjoyed regular first-team action in the Premier League—particularly Lichaj, who has constantly been sent out on loan to clubs in England's lower divisions (most notably Leeds United).

Is that really the best environment for Shea to continue his development?

Even Klinsmann has advised his burgeoning starlet to hold the reigns on a potential move to a top European club, Sporting News reported.

Klinsmann used his own career as an example. The illustrious former German international conceded that he moved too quickly to Inter Milan as an 18 year old and now regrets the decision.

While it is true that the level of soccer in American professional leagues pales in comparison to the European equivalent, you can never discount the importance of consistent playing time in a comfortable environment. America is Shea's home. And the MLS isn't a far cry from England's lower divisions.

This past summer, current French national team manager Laurent Blanc echoed Klinsmann's exhortation to keep homegrown talent at home until the players are ready to make a move abroad.

Blanc had witnessed Karim Benzema struggle to find consistent playing time at Real Madrid following his high-profile move in 2009 and wanted to ensure that future players held off on joining big clubs before they were ready.

There was no doubting Benzema's quality, just as it would be fruitless to deny Shea's obvious talent. But the former Lyon striker Benzema was just another striker added to a glut of attacking talent in his new Madrid home, and it took him time to adapt to the style of the Spanish game.

Inside Futbol was just one of the media outlets to pick up Blanc's words of warning over the summer for then-Lorient striker Kevin Gameiro, who was juggling potential moves to French side Paris Saint-Germain or La Liga outfit Valencia.

Blanc, who was no stranger to playing abroad during his own impressive career, pointed out the inherent pressure of arriving in a new surrounding with a big reputation—see Benzema.

Gameiro ended up choosing Paris and has already scored eight league goals this season, while becoming a consistent inclusion in the French national team. Seems like the sound decision.

Might Shea continue along the same line of development as Gameiro if he remains with FC Dallas? That remains to be seen.

Despite his exploits in USA's 2-0 win over Spain in the '09 Confederations Cup, Altidore has been largely unimpressive in recent seasons.
Despite his exploits in USA's 2-0 win over Spain in the '09 Confederations Cup, Altidore has been largely unimpressive in recent seasons.Jamie McDonald/Getty Images

What is certain is Shea's quality as a player. He can finish with both feet, contains impressive pace, and has an innate knack for finding space on the pitch that other players can only dream about. The talent is there.

But if he jumps across the Atlantic for a glamor-filled transfer, the pressure will be immense. Might he prove himself immune to the media attention? Does his talent supersede the potential risks?

Potentially. And if it's his dream to leave, then he should pursue it.

But why take that risk?

At 21, he is still a few years away from his prime as a footballer. Why not continue to develop in the U.S., with the cautionary tales of Adu, Altidore and Donovan in his mind's eye? He has already become a regular in the U.S. national team discussion, and he earned that place while playing in the MLS.

There's no rush to switch, nor should there be. Europe will always be there. And like Donovan, Shea might have the most success once he's more seasoned.

On the other hand, his confidence reserves, which could become crippled by lack of playing time on the Old Continent, can dissipate—and fast.


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