Brek Shea’s USMNT return includes a personal, artistic touch

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It had been 550 days since Brek Shea scored an international goal for his country. The national team had played 2,008 minutes, with or without him – mostly without him.

So when Brek Shea ripped home a “lashed-in bullet” from a tight angle to open the scoring against Chile in the sixth minute of their January friendly, the moment took over. Brek covered his face with his hand and celebrated like it meant the world to him.

Because it did. In that moment, Brek’s entire lifestyle came together in one big personal achievement that marked the culmination of years of hard work on and off the field.

Brek Shea's celebration has a very particular meaning (Photo by Philipp Schmidli/Getty Images)
Brek Shea’s goal celebration has a very particular meaning (Photo by Philipp Schmidli/Getty Images)

SHEA RETURNS IN STYLE

“When I do it on the field it has a personal meaning for my career and my comeback after struggling in England. That’s what it stands for to me.” -Brek Shea

Brek had struggled to find the field in all facets of his career, not just under Jurgen Klinsmann. His on-again, off-again club journey has been well documented in the United States. A tumultuous two-year journey to England was ambitious but also a struggle. He managed just three Premier League appearances with Stoke City and 14 more in the Championship during loan spells at Barnsley and Birmingham City that both ended abruptly.

Those struggles understandably translated to a significant drop in national team appearances. He was a mainstay on the 2013 Gold Cup squad, appearing in every match during the tournament and scoring the winner during the final after coming on as a substitute. But following his Gold Cup heroics, Shea appeared in just four matches over the course of the next year and a half.

Then came his January start. It’s clear that his move to Orlando City has reignited his national team career. Earning a full 90 minutes against Chile in the beginning of a busy early 2015 for the United States, Brek exploded back onto the scene with his sixth minute goal. But that wasn’t all. He performed like the Brek Shea of old, bursting forward to provide an attacking threat while actually providing a capable defensive structure – the most common criticism against his ability to play left-back.

Brek Shea is back.

MONOPOLY MONEY

“I was really humbled to see a member of the American team doing one of my moves.” -Alec Monopoly

Soccer is just a part of Brek Shea’s fascinating world. The 25-year-old Texas native has a number of passions that occupy his time when he’s not on the field.

One of those passions is art. The other is shoes. The combination of the two led Brek to discover a symbol he would display to the world on that evening at Estadio El Teniente.

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Europe bound! #USMNT #IHateFlying

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Brek has been covering his face in photos for a while on his Instagram page, and he displayed the gesture to a national audience when he gave the US a 1-0 lead early. But the goal celebration isn’t his own, it’s a tribute to a friend he greatly respects, an artist named Alec Monopoly.

“I try to be an artist in my off time and my free time, so I obviously have artists I really like and their style and what they do,” Brek said. “He’s one of my favorite artists, and I kind of picked up on his hand thing and how he hides face. He obviously has his reasons why he does it, and I kind of took it and spun it and have my reasons why I do it.”

Alec is a graffiti artist who began on the streets of New York developing his skills and keeping away from police all at the same time. For a graffiti artist displaying a talent that Alec describes as “super illegal,” an artist’s identity is his life. To keep his hidden, Alec began concealing the lower half of his face in photographs by facing away from the camera, wearing a mask, or by simply covering his face with his hand. To keep his real name hidden, Alec developed his pseudonym from his repeated depictions of the board game Monopoly, mostly the game’s mascot Rich Uncle Pennybags.

Years removed from his start on the streets and now a nationally renowned bigtime artist, Alec’s work sells for thousands of dollars, and he has art displayed in the houses of celebrities like Miley Cyrus and Snoop Dogg. But he’s never forgotten his roots. “All the celebrities, that stuff doesn’t really matter to me, all I care about is art and graffiti,” Alec said. “But something like this happening [Brek’s celebration], I was really taken back by it.”

Alec still never shows his face in pictures, allowing him to remain somewhat anonymous to the public. But he and Brek connected over another love: shoes.

“We were connected through Del Toro Shoes, ” Brek said. “I’m a shoe fanatic, and I’m a big fan of Del Toro Shoes. I have Alec’s personal shoe that he designed through Del Toro.” Alec echoed that sentiment, saying he thinks Brek “has bought every single pair they make.”

CONTINUING TO GROW

“In the years I haven’t been playing, I had a rough time with injuries and playing time. So now that I’m back playing every week in MLS and back with the national team, it was kind of my thing where I knew if I scored, this is what I’m going to do.” -Brek Shea

Brek’s friendship with Alec is just beginning. Having borrowed Alec’s trademark move for his own personal touch, it clearly was more than a fleeting one-time display. Brek scored again just two months later against Switzerland, and again he covered his face.

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Brek’s goal celebration has a deep connection to his personal journey both on and off the field.

The goal in Zurich gave Brek his fourth goal in his last 12 national team appearances, numbers one might expect from a striker. While those appearances are scattered across a nearly two year span, he’s always provided an attacking flair on the field. His defense was at times suspect, but that seems to have changed.

Against Denmark in March, Shea was a halftime substitute, and he was instrumental in the US maintaining a draw despite falling a man down with nearly a half-hour still to go. In both wins since, 2-0 victories over Panama and Mexico, Shea provided some attacking threat but mainly focused on his defensive duties, and he performed admirably, going largely unnoticed, a positive for a defender.

With his play on the field showing new life, so is his relationship with Alec. The two both have understandably busy lives and have yet to meet in person, but are in constant contact and hope to do so soon. And while Brek has expressed his love for Alec’s work, it goes both ways. “I love all sports, but I have a crazy schedule and I don’t follow [soccer] like crazy,” Alec said. “But obviously now I’m going to be the biggest follower ever [of the US national team].”

So Brek Shea is back. How long will depend on his ability to maintain a high level on the field, but at the moment, he seems to be a more permanent member of the ever-changing US roster while Klinsmann continues to experiment. And as always with Brek, he brings his all to the soccer field, including a colorful personality.

Hyndman, Hamid seal permanent MLS deals

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Two players who have featured for the U.S. Men’s National Team in the past signed permanent MLS deals on Monday, after spending the all or parts of the 2019 MLS season on loan in the league.

The question is, should we be disappointed? It’s two USMNT-eligible players in their prime who are leaving Europe for regular playing time? Will that playing time get them back in the USMNT picture? Or were their old club teams simply the problem before?

[ MORE: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

It was a return for Bill Hamid, who was a D.C. United homegrown player and arguably the first player on the team sheet between 2009-2017. Hamid actually returned from Europe in 2018 and spent all of the last year and a half on loan from FC Midtjylland in Denmark.

Hyndman on the other hand signed a permanent deal with Atlanta United, after the former MLS Cup champions signed the 23-year-old midfielder on a loan deal from Bournemouth in the Premier League. It was Hyndman’s fourth club in four years – including three loan moves – and perhaps Atlanta is a place he can put down roots and stay for the long term.

Per both D.C. United and Atlanta United, both players signed multi-year deals. D.C. United reportedly even paid a transfer fee for Hamid.

Both players are solid to good players in MLS, and as Americans, they add quality and don’t cost a team an international spot. But for the U.S. Men’s National Team, it’s unclear how this could affect the pair.

On one hand, USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter has shown a preference to certain players he had in the 2019 January camp, including guys like Nick Lima, Paul Arriola and Christian Roldan, even if performances don’t necessarily merit them playing each match. On the other hand, as someone who has played in Germany, and England, Berhalter surely understands the benefits of challenging yourself every few years to play and train at a higher level. It doesn’t have to be Jurgen Klinsmann levels, where every single year they have to step it up, but finding a new way to freshen things up in a tough environment can have positive benefits for everyone, assuming there is playing time.

For Hyndman, who moved to Fulham’s academy in 2011 at the age of 15, it marks the end of seven years in Europe trying to break in. He had decent half-season spells with Hibernian and Rangers in the Scottish Premier Division, but one can argue that Atlanta United is itself on a higher level of play. That being said, Hyndman has clearly decided that regular gametime is best for his development as a player than relocating to the Netherlands, Italy or Germany to play. He wasn’t likely to get any at Bournemouth, even with their current Premier League struggles.

In Hamid’s case, he took a chance on Europe with FC Midtjylland. However, pretty quickly he realized that it wasn’t the right situation for him and within six months, he was back on D.C. United on loan for the next year and a half.

In both cases, there may have been options to continue their European adventures. Whether it was in the Championship or another “mid-major” European league, in the past, two players entering their primes might have tried to stay in Europe a little longer. But the lure of MLS, with a decent salary, less competition for places and the opportunity to play at home in front of family is a strong one, and the national team will have to adjust with it.

 

Would Saul make sense at Man United?

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As Manchester United prepares its roster construction for the future, one player that’s reportedly on the shortlist is Atletico Madrid central midfielder Saul Niguez.

Although originally from Elche, in southeast Spain, Saul has been on the books of Atletico Madrid since 2008 (other than a season on loan with Rayo Vallecano), making his first team debut in 2012 and growing from a scrawny midfielder into an international-calibre box-to-box star for both club and country. Per Diario AS, Man United has been interested in signing Saul before, and now it’s been revived. The report states, “The interest from Manchester is very real, and strong.”

[READ: Arsenal comes back to beat West Ham]

So, what kind of a player is Saul?

As mentioned before, he’s a sturdy, powerful box-to-box midfielder who can win headers defensively and knows how to play well in a Diego “Cholo” Simeone system. At the same time, he’s certainly not afraid to make a late run into the box. Last season he tied a career high with four goals in La Liga and also scored in the UEFA Champions League.

At 25-years old, he’s a hardened veteran player. But is he what Man United needs?

If you look at the current squad at Ole Gunnar Solskjaer‘s disposal, he’s got quite a few No. 8’s, right? There’s Paul Pogba, Andreas Pereira, and Fred. You can argue Scott McTominay has at times played like an 8, as has Jesse Lingard on occasion. One might argue that what Man United really needs is a better No. 6, someone who can be a destroyer and cover a lot of ground, freeing up that side of the game so Pogba could feel more comfortable attacking.

If Man United were to sign Saul in January – or next summer – we could potentially see him line up in a midfield three, though he’d be center right with Pogba to his left. Behind the pair would be McTominay to clean up the messes.

On paper, it’s a decent midfield for sure, but it’s just one step on Man United’s path towards becoming a team that can challenge for the Premier League and Champions League.

Of course, this is all theoretical. Saul carries a $166 million transfer release clause, and for the player he is, considering he doesn’t score many goals and affects the game in little ways, it’s a lot to spend for a guy who isn’t a guarantee to improve his team enough to make it back to the Champions League.

But if Man United was able to negotiate a better transfer fee for Niguez, they could do worse than a talented midfielder from Atletico Madrid. The question then will be – is Saul a system player (only successful under Simeone), or can he find success in the Premier League too?

USWNT’s Rapinoe named SI Sportswoman of the Year

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In 2019, Megan Rapinoe won a World Cup title, Golden Ball, Golden Boot, FIFA World Cup MVP, and the Ballon d’Or. Now, she can add her name to another distinguished list.

Sports Illustrated on Monday revealed that Rapinoe had been named SI’s 2019 Sportsperson of the Year. She’s the first individual soccer player from any gender to win the award, and she follows the 1999 U.S. Women’s National Team as the second USWNT-related athlete to garner the award.

[READ: Rapinoe wins 2019 Ballon d’Or]

Other notable winners of this award are Serena Williams, LeBron James, the Golden State Warriors, Michael Jordan, and Muhammad Ali.

“Even in a year with many great candidates, choosing Megan as the Sportsperson of the Year was an easy decision,” Steve Cannella, co-editor-in-chief of Sports Illustrated said in a statement released by the magazine. “She is a force of nature on and off the field, a trailblazing soccer player who also proves every day how large and loud a voice a socially conscious athlete can have in 2019.”

Rapinoe has had about as good of a year as a player can have, and she did it under enormous pressure. She withstood verbal and online taunts from the U.S. president for her noted opposition against his political decisions, as well as dealt with injuries during the tournament. Even if she wasn’t always at her best on the field, she found a way to score key goals at important moments.

Every Women’s World Cup seems to raise the profile of the USWNT and soccer in this country, but beyond her work on the field, Rapinoe’s hair, media savvy and ultimately, her performance won over any critic she could have. What she’s done for soccer in this country is immeasurable, and hopefully there are people that have a desire to keep watching the beautiful game after the World Cup, thanks in some part to Rapinoe.

Rapinoe will grace the cover of Sports Illustrated for the Dec. 16 issue.

Ljungberg on Pepe: He ‘showed his quality’

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Arsene Wenger used to say that players needed around six months once they came to the Premier League to get adjusted to both living in England and getting acclimated to the pace and physicality of the league.

For Nicolas Pepe, it was advice well heeded.

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Offensively, Pepe was outstanding as he scored a goal and an assist in Arsenal’s 3-1 win over West Ham. At the same time, Pepe worked hard on the defensive end, making life difficult for West Ham left back Aaron Cresswell and anyone down West Ham’s right flank.

On Monday, Pepe showed that he was worth his $87 million transfer fee, and he only needs a yard of space to create something magical.

“People always ask me about Nico and I try to explain,” Ljungberg after the game. “He comes from the French league, he comes to the Premier League – in my opinion the best league in the world – and it’s a lot faster and a lot harder. He needs to adapt. People put pressure on him but that’s not so easy, and I thought what he did today was he worked really hard offensively and defensively and showed his quality.

“I’m so pleased for him because at the same time he was a big, big buy for the club and then comes pressure with that as well. He will fall asleep with a smile tonight.”

In the 66th minute, Pepe found himself isolated on the wing with just Cresswell to beat. After cutting inside, Pepe curled home a beauty which ended up being the game-winning-goal. It was just his second Premier League goal of the season and his first from open play. Perhaps now after five months of bedding in at Arsenal, Pepe is ready to shine.

There’s no doubt that with Arsenal’s defensive issues, they need their attacking stars to score in bunches from here on out. If Pepe can finish the season with ten goals and ten assists, it will be a wild success, and set him up well for the next season.