As soccer in the United States and MLS matures, there are fewer and fewer firsts. A decade ago it seemed as though everything was a new record or the first time something happened, but with the league starting to feel the first touches of precedent and history, it's now far tougher to break a record, be an original, or be a first. That's not to say that it's impossible, however: In year 16 of MLS and 21 years after the U.S. qualified for their first World Cup in the modern era, we have ourselves something new. His name is Brek Shea.
Simply put, there is nobody in American soccer history with whom we can reasonable compare Shea. That may not be evident evident upon first view - it's fairly easy to lump him in with the rest of the young Americans who have drawn interest from big clubs in Europe. None have the pedigree that Shea possesses. As he he looks towards a big-money move overseas, the best comparison to Shea is not an American because there has been no American player like him.
When it comes to MLS players making big-money moves abroad, Jozy Altidore leads the way. He left the New York Red Bulls for Spanish side Villarreal in 2008 for $10 million, a figure which still stands as the record as the largest fee paid for a MLS player. Most reports indicate that Shea will be sold for a similar fee, certainly challenging the record that Villarreal set in buying Altidore, if not surpassing it.
So what differentiates Shea from Altidore? Experience. When Villarreal bought the latter, it was largely based on potential. In 2008 Altidore was just 18 years old and had a mere 37 professional appearances to his name. At the senior international level, Altidore had just two caps. Contrast that to Shea, who is 21 years old, has 84 professional appearances, with some of those coming in the CONCACAF Champions League, where he's taken on the region's best. He also has seven senior international caps. Whereas foreign managers and scouts could only judge Altidore based on a handful of matches and scintillating U-20 World Cup performance, they have almost 100 matches against grown men with which to gauge Shea.
Freddy Adu may be a slightly better comparison. Like Altidore, he left the USA young for a move to the Iberian Peninsula, heading to Primeira Liga powerhouse Benfica, but unlike Altidore he'd been an MLS staple before his transfer. Still, Adu's transfer mostly came about on the basis of youth team performances. When he moved to Benfica, he had nearly 100 professional appearances, but had never been a great player and was without a senior national team start. His stock soared after a great youth team performance at the 2007 U-20 World Cup, Benfica snapped him up, and were disappointed. Shea had his youth team success, but he's also had a spectacular MLS career. This year, he's an easy MVP candidate and has been the go-to guy for one of the league's top teams, carrying a club that without him would have been crippled by the loss of David Ferreira to injury. Shea has the youth team cache of Adu and Altidore, but he also has an MVP quality professional season under his belt.
As far as big hype, big experience Americans heading abroad go, Eddie Johnson leads the way. He moved to Fulham in 2008 with more than 125 professional appearances to his name. Johnson's move to Fulham came with his career starting to slide though. While his 2007 season as a whole looked good with 15 goals, 12 of those came in the first 11 games. By the end of the season he was slowing and was a borderline national team selection. He no longer had interest from Benfica and other Champions League quality clubs, instead being scouted by bottom-dwelling teams.
Injuries were also a problem for Johnson as he missed most of 2005 with a toe injury then missed chunks of 2006 with various ailments. They've not been an issue in the last three years for Shea. A torn meniscus wiped out much of Shea's rookie season, but he made 58 appearances for Dallas the last two years and already had 34 appearances for the Hoops this year. He's been run into the ground this season by Schellas Hyndman, who plays his talisman in almost every match, and Shea also has national team duty on top of his club responsibilities. If he was ever going to break down, presumably he would have done so this season, but he has maintained his health and shouldered the burden for Dallas even with the heavy workload.
Few American field players can claim to have drawn interest from the top teams in the world, but Shea is one of them, even if the level of their interest isn't clear. Other Americans to get a chance with top clubs include Landon Donovan, Jonathan Spector, Jovan Kirovski and John O'Brien. Each of those were signed as youth players to clubs like Manchester United, Bayer Leverkusen and Ajax, setting a high standard which none of them managed to live up to.
That is the bar that Shea is trying to clear, and there should be every expectation that he will surpass it. The other players at big clubs went as youth players. They were judged solely on potential and none had a single professional appearance when they joined the club. Shea will have the chance to join a high-level team because he's earned it and because said club thinks he can step in and help to some degree, not simply because they want to pad out their youth teams with 'maybe' prospects.
Perhaps Shea's closest American analogue is DaMarcus Beasley. Beasley was highly regarded and his arrow was pointing up with almost 100 appearances for the Chicago Fire when he moved to PSV Eindhoven, where he was a hit. He played on a team that won the Eredivisie and scored three goals in the Champions League, adding a semifinal appearance in the competition to his name.
However, Beasley's career came to a screeching halt when he failed to stay healthy. That isn't completely shocking considering that he is just 5'8'' and 145 lbs. soaking wet, but Shea doesn't have anything to worry about in that respect. Even aside from three healthy seasons, including this ultra-durable season, Shea has the body built to withstand the rigors of professional football. He's 6'3'' and 180 lbs. He can take a beating and keep going.
If one were to go searching for a proper comparison for Shea, he would have to look outside U.S. borders. Most accurately, he would have to look to the British Isles and to Wales' Gareth Bale. Not Bale as he is now, of course - the Welsh sensation has proven himself with Tottenham Hotspur in the Premier League and (perhaps even more notably) the UEFA Champions League where he became a household name after destroying Inter Milan and Brazil right back Maicon. Flip Bale's career back two years, however, and you find a very different player.
Prior to Bale's emergence with Tottenham in early 2010, he was a one-time hot prospect from Southampton who had struggled to get going for Spurs. What he did have was a reputation from Southampton, where he helped lead the club through an excellent Championship season, a league with a similar level of play to MLS. Bale was part of the team that made the Championship playoffs and was the Football League Young Player of the Year in 2007.
Shea's standout quality, despite being a large player, is his speed. Bale, while not quite as big as Shea, is also a bigger winger with blinding pace. Like Shea, plays on the left, preferably in the midfield, but Bale has also played at the back, on the right and up top. The same is true of Shea, who's notorious for his versatility, at one point being seen as a possibly elite center back. When Bale moved to Spurs, he wasn't handed a starting spot, but put with the first team, given chances off of the bench and told to compete for playing time, which is probably the situation Shea will find himself in when he does move. Bale's transfer fee? $11 million - another Shea parallel.
Nobody is predicting that Shea will be the next Gareth Bale. Some similarities do not mean that Shea will be taking the Champions League by storm in 18 months or that he's going to be the first American to star for a Champions League contender since Beasley with PSV. What is clear though is that the most apt comparisons for Shea lay beyond the borders of the United States. That's because Shea is that increasingly rare thing in American soccer. He is one-of-a-kind. He is a first.