There were a lot of expectations for Brek Shea when he first arrived in Orlando from Stoke City. He was another attacking piece in the puzzle that would propel Orlando City to places ordinary expansion franchises generally could not go.
The eccentric artist with a soccer habit quickly became the most popular Lions player not named Kaká; the possibility of having a USMNT member in purple was too enticing. His highlight reel with FC Dallas promised size, pace, and a finisher’s instinct. He hustled to clean up loose balls, made the right runs into space, and was a dangerous attacker for the Texas club making runs in behind the defense.
He was a rising star in MLS before he transferred away, and now that he was back he could once again be an impact player.
But the reality of the situation was that Brek was in the Dark Ages of his career. His move abroad had not gone as planned after failing to make an impression at any of his stops in England. With fewer than 10 appearances for any of Stoke, Barnsley, or Birmingham City, the once-promising career for Shea looked to be derailed. The low point came when he had an altercation with Barnsley supporters that resulted in his loan being terminated early.
A move back home made sense to get back on track to get him out of that rut. It involved a positional change to fullback, but with Shea’s elite athleticism the hurdles were seemingly minimal. After all, some of the best fullbacks in the world were once forwards.
In the beginning, it looked like it might work out. In the inaugural match against New York City FC, Shea excited the supporters after sending Josh Williams tumbling to the turf with a skillful spin. He earned a call-up for the USMNT after performing admirably in his new role as a defender; the plan seemed to be coming together.
But the Dark Ages continued. He struggled to make the transition and his performances suffered. He was tugged between midfield and defense depending on who Orlando City had available. It was a case of a square peg in a round hole. Combining that with a groin injury, he only made 19 appearances in 2015. 2016 wasn’t much better, as he struggled to become the impact player he was intended to be. His large cap hit — he was owed $550,000 in base salary last year according to the Players’ Union, at the time third-most on the team — combined with his underwhelming performances made him look like a potential casualty of the change in regimes from Adrian Heath to Jason Kreis.
But now the stars are aligning for a Brek Shea Renaissance in 2017.
The big Texan might be the biggest benefactor from Kreis’ tactical changes. One of the first thing Kreis did when he took over at the club was to take Shea out of defense and put him in his more natural attacking role. Brek managed to score twice after the switch back, showing a little bit of that magic from his Dallas days. If not hampered by another injury at the tail end of the season, he could have had more.
Kreis has also stressed fitness above all else this off-season, which has always been one of Shea’s biggest assets.
“I feel better now than I have in a really long time going in to a season, so I am ready and excited,” the winger said during training last month. “[Kreis] had a strict fitness plan for the off season, wanting the guys to come in fit so we don’t have to work on fitness for the first two weeks, we can start playing straight away, and the team did that.”
With a new game plan that features a lot of pressing from the attackers, Shea is a natural fit with his stamina and pace. He’s a much better fit for this new system than he was for Heath’s free-flowing attacking midfield.
And now that Kevin Molino’s exit has opened up some more minutes for Brek, perhaps there’s a little less pressure on him. The Lions are looking to fill the hole that the Trinidadian left behind and during last weekend’s friendly with Jacksonville University, Shea was spotted on the field during the first half with other would-be starters like Kaká, Will Johnson, and Jonathan Spector. It would seem as though he’s the front-runner for the job over other contenders like Carlos Rivas.
If he can play himself into being an every-week starter for the Lions, it can only go up from there. If he can even get back to the output he had in Dallas — a handful of goals and assists every year — it would be a step up for a team that has struggled to find quality on the wings since the departure of Adrian Winter. If Brek can improve on those totals, perhaps coming close to the 11 goals he bagged for FCD in 2011, the Lions could finally have that strong, quick keystone in their attack that we’ve been hoping for since Dec. 2014. We’ve all seen what he’s capable of, it’s just a matter of putting it all together.
And becoming a key piece for Orlando City is just the first step for Brek. With Bruce Arena now at the helm of the USMNT and leaning more on the MLS talent available to him, Shea could be back in the picture for the national team with a few positive performances. Arena mentioned Shea as one of the players who just missed out on an invite to January camp and Brek has taken notice:
“Obviously, that is cool to hear. But I am focused on the club, getting myself ready for the season, and then playing well. Whenever a player does that, they get a chance to prove themselves at national level, so hopefully I can do this first and worry about that later. I’ve never played for him but I’ve talked to him many times and I think he’s a great guy and a great coach for the program. I don’t know his day-to-day coaching style – but I hope to, so we’ll see.”
With important World Cup qualifiers coming up on the calendar, Shea will need to make an impression quickly to jump back into the national team picture after being gone for so long. But with the lack of depth on the wings, his path to consideration could be a short one.
What’s important is that Shea has been handed a new beginning in Orlando this year. If he can take what’s in front of him, 2017 could finally be the year we see him take that next step and put his mark on American soccer.