By IVES GALARCEP
Brek Shea is working his way toward full fitness and a chance to make his English Premier League debut sooner than expected, and he took a big step toward that on Tuesday after scoring a goal and playing a full match for Stoke City’s reserves.
Having only recently returned to England over the weekend after sorting out his work permit paperwork, Shea wasted no time showing Stoke coaches what he can bring to the table, heading home a goal in a closed-door friendly against Burnley at the Britannia Stadium.
A goal in a closed-door friendly doesn’t mean Shea is all the way back yet, but it’s a big step for a player who has about five weeks to get himself fit, and into the Stoke City rotation if he’s going to have a chance of being part of the U.S. Men’s National Team plans for the March qualifiers.
And in case you hadn’t noticed in last week’s USA loss to Honduras, the U.S. team could certainly use a player just like Shea right now.
Consider, if you will, the fact that it was just six months ago that we saw Shea in a U.S. National Team uniform, breaking down a Mexican defender before setting up the winning goal for the United States at Estadio Azteca. Now consider the strong likelihood that he played that match, and two qualifiers against Jamaica after that, with a painful foot injury. And then consider the fact that the Americans are set to return to Azteca in five weeks and they head there in need of a true left winger.
Some may choose to overlook Shea’s impressive cameo against Mexico and focus on his other games in 2012, when he wasn’t nearly as effective and looked little like the player who tore up MLS in the summer of 2011. That is certainly was the case, but after surgery to repair the broken bone in his foot, and after an extended recovery period, Shea heads into 2013 as rested as he has ever been since becoming a regular pro.
Fresh legs and the confidence that would come with playing in the English Premier League could produce just the kind of speedy and shifty left winger the U.S. attack needs to stretch defenses and create some width for a national team that played a painfully narrow game against Honduras.
It might seem like a stretch to think Jurgen Klinsmann would throw Shea into some qualifiers, but let’s remember that through the first year of Klinsmann’s tenure, Shea was as much a regular part of Klinsmann’s lineup selections as Tim Howard and Clint Dempsey. If he can regain his sharpness, and find regular playing time at Stoke, you can be the ranch that Klinsmann calls him in and potentially hands him a starting role.
It is no secret the U.S. needs wingers badly, and for all the good memories we have of Eddie Johnson terrorizing Antigua & Barbuda from the left flank, the reality is Johnson just isn’t a left winger and facing tougher defenses in the Hex will mean far less of a possibility that Johnson finds success being played out of position.
When he’s on form, Shea can fit perfectly into a 4-3-3 as a left forward, a 4-2-3-1 as the left winger, and the 4-4-2 as a more traditional left winger.
Before we can project him on the U.S. team in March he must first break through with Stoke City, which is no sure thing. Stoke City didn’t spend $4 million on Shea to bury him on the bench, but the Potters aren’t exactly struggling in the Premier League so there is no sense of urgency to rush Shea along. Scoring a goal in his first action for Stoke, even if only in a closed-door friendly, is a big first step for Shea.
If Shea can’t break through, he still might be an option for Klinsmann, though starting him could be tough to justify. Klinsmann might have to take a look at veteran winger DaMarcus Beasley, who continues to ply his trade at a good level in the Mexican League. If Beasley isn’t an option, and if Landon Donovan fails to return from his sabbatical, Klinsmann just might be tempted to take a chance on Shea even if he isn’t seeing regular playing time at Stoke.
What other options are there? Can Klinsmann really deploy Eddie Johnson on the left flank again? Doing so against Costa Rica and Mexico, with their speedy wing options, could be a recipe for disaster. Some have suggested moving Fabian Johnson to the left wing and playing someone else at left back, but given the unsettled state of the back-line it would be foolish to tinker with one of the players who seems a stable pick for the defense (the Honduras match notwithstanding).
Shea has five weeks to get in shape, get in the Stoke rotation and get on the field. He needs to do that to make Klinsmann’s decision easy, and the U.S. team needs him to do that because left wing options are pretty scarce these days.
That might sound like a lot of responsibility to place on a young player like Shea, but after making a multi-million dollar move to the English Premier League, Shea had better start getting used to increased responsibilities and expectations.