Making the jump to Europe and finding success is no easy feat to pull off. Countless Americans have tried, and many of them faltered.
A limited number of players have left our shores and departed for the greener pastures — and paychecks — of the European game and been able to make a good name for themselves. Think Clint Dempsey, Carlos Bocanegra, Steve Cherundulo and Tim Howard, all of whom had great on field success.
For some, however, they see their bright starts fizzle away to obscurity. The first name that comes to mind is a guy like Maurice Edu, who had some monstrous performances for Rangers before devolving into a reserve at Stoke. Others like Adam Lichaj, Clarence Goodson and Jonathan Spector make for similar examples of promising prospects that developed into average careers at best.
Still others oscillate between successes and failures, such as Jozy Altidore is finding out after failing to impress in his time at Villareal, then finding his feet at AZ, and now struggling again at Sunderland.
But for many, it never really clicked in the first place. The best instance of this is Eddie Johnson’s disastrous spell at Fulham.
The margin for whether an American player — and all players moving abroad, for that matter — will end up a flop or a hit is razor thin. The variables that determine that are innumerable. It can range from the situation of the club he is acquired by to the manager(s) he plays under, the culture of the country or even the player’s mental strength. It’s a toss up, really. And a lot of things have to go perfectly for it all to pop off.
So when it was announced this week that Brek Shea would be leaving Stoke City on yet another loan after unsuccessfully securing any meaningful playing time for the Potters, I feared that he might be steadily on his way to joining the long list of American failures in Europe.
And if I’m being completely honest, I was actually concerned Shea might turn out this way back when he first moved to Europe in January of 2013.
However, before we get into why that was a concern, let’s chart his career trajectory a bit. Back in 2011, Shea had just logged an impressive 11 goal, 5 assist campaign for FC Dallas in his fourth season in MLS. He had broken into Klinsmann’s US side and had shown flashes of creativity and excitement in attack. Many were touting him as the brightest light of the new crop of players being ushered into the program. And it was around that time when the European clubs began to circle like vultures. Which made sense given that Shea possesses the exceedingly rare “Three S’s” of size, speed and strength. Ultimately he settled on a trial/training stint with Arsenal, which inspired me to write this piece on how big of a chance it could have proven for him. Things seemed very, very bright for the Texas native.
Unfortunately, no permanent move materialized and he followed that all up with a pretty lackluster — albeit injury-riddled — 2012 back in Dallas. But though his performances slagged, his off field celebrity remained large and social media following continued to ballooned. Some questioned whether all of that contributed to him being a bit distracted and was more concerned with maintaining his image. Yet despite all of that, Stoke City still came calling in January 2013.
And that’s where I started to question whether Brek might be making the wrong move at the wrong time.
Having surgery to remove a bone in his foot and coming off an under performing season in MLS, it might have made more sense to stick it out in Dallas for a bit longer. Doing so might have helped him to regain his fitness and rebuild his confidence. Besides, joining European sides midway through the season is always a difficult task.
At the time, Stoke City were in a bit of a stutter themselves and only picked up a point during the entire month of January under Tony Pulis. Too, Pulis’ Stoke weren’t exactly renown for their attacking acumen. And for both reasons, the manager found himself under increasing pressure from both the fans and boardroom that eventually lead to his departure.
As an attacking player whose skills and tactical awareness still needed further honing, Shea’s moving to Stoke to play under Pulis just didn’t make much sense. Furthermore, choosing to go play under a manager who didn’t look like he would be in the job much longer seemed naive — though you could argue he might have thought the club’s poor run of form would give him a chance to break into the side.
The attack-minded Mark Hughes’ arrival at the Britannia Stadium in March might have seemed like a boost to Shea’s chances of success. But given that Hughes has only chosen him twice in the 18 months since then, it’s probably fair to say the Welshman doesn’t exactly fancy what he has to offer.
That said, Hughes hasn’t completely shut him out in the cold. The lanky winger was farmed out at the beginning of the year to Barnsley with the aim of getting him some matches. Although you could also see the move as means of placing Shea in the shop window too. And though he impressed on his debut for Tykes and made eight appearances for them, his loan was cut short and he was sent back to Stoke after a bust up with supporters. Predictably, Hughes didn’t give him a runout once he returned either.
Since, things have remained rather stagnant for Mr. Shea. Without much on-pitch time to sharpen his game since the move to England — and after failing to impress in his appearances in the pre-tournament tune ups — Klinsmann wisely skipped over him for the US’ World Cup squad. A lackluster appearance in the last friendly against the Czech Republic only served to reinforce that decision.
And now he’s gone out on loan again, this time to Championship side Birmingham City. Hughes even went so far as to say he didn’t see the American in his plans for the Potters, though perhaps impressing while on loan might be a way to change the manager’s mind.
But you get the feeling that if he disappoints at St. Andrew’s, Shea’s days in England might just be numbered.
Of course, this might be a bit premature. He’s never quite regained full fitness since moving abroad, and a consistent run of games has helped many a player to find form before. Maybe he’ll find his feet in Birmingham, and use it as a launch pad to greater success across the pond.
You hate to say that Brek Shea is a cat that’s used up eight of his nine lives in just a year and a half playing overseas. But his showings of late haven’t exactly been the kind that would convince you otherwise, and his manager at Stoke isn’t exactly the type to give players bonus chances.
And if that’s the case, he’ll be the latest in a long line of American players that just couldn’t cut the mustard abroad.