ORLANDO, Fla. – A fully fit Brek Shea has been close to the top of Orlando City SC head coach Adrian Heath’s wish list for 2016, and it now seems clear that wish is about to come true – with additional benefits for the US national team.
Having come through a strenuous preseason with the Lions – including playing a full 90 minutes in Saturday’s big preseason win over Brazilian side Esporte Clube Bahia at the Citrus Bowl – Shea is a surefire starter against Real Salt Lake on Sunday in their regular-season opener (2 PM ET; MLS LIVE).
It has been a long road back to full fitness for the rangy left-sided player, who now seems destined for a lengthy run at fullback after being sidetracked last year, first by having to fill a midfield role in the absence of Kevin Molino and then by a sports hernia injury.
The rehab from his surgery caused him to sit idle for the first half of the offseason before gradually ramping his workload back up and being able to put in a full shift at the position most desired by his Orlando coach as well as national team boss Jurgen Klinsmann.
And, while he is taking nothing for granted, Shea is determined to figure prominently for both club and country this year. In fact, he is positively counting on being back in the team for the World Cup qualifying campaign later this year.
“I have no doubts in my ability; I think if I stay healthy I will be with the national team,” he insisted. “That’s my mindset. Obviously I’m not the coach, but I don’t think there’s anyone who is better than me in that left-back position in the national team.”
Shea’s assertion is borne of some promising outings for the US in the early part of 2015 – including scoring a sweet free kick against Switzerland in March – as well as feeling better than he has in almost a year since a nagging groin strain became a constant companion.
“Yes, I am excited for the season,” he added. “I don’t think you can ever say you are totally happy with your fitness, but I am happier than I was a week ago and certainly happier than I was 10 months ago.
“I feel great, but you can always be healthier and fitter, so I wouldn’t say I’m where I want to be because I always strive to be better. But I am ready for Real Salt Lake.”
Realistically, Shea will need to put in at least a solid month of games before Klinsmann is likely to recall him to the international fold, which means his next action for his country might be in the Copa America Centenario in June. But he is happy to bide his time and make sure he is ready when the call comes.
“This is not about being ready tomorrow,” he said. “It’s a while since I had a full season’s play, and that’s my goal this year.”
Shea does admit to being a changed man in some respects since he last pulled on a US shirt. The birth of his daughter, Phoenix, last September has given him some extra focus.
“You realize how hard it is, but how awesome it is,” he said of being a parent for the first time. “It is an amazing experience, seeing her do new things every day. But you certainly look at things differently; you have a kid and you are supposed to be a role model and teach people and just be a good parent, and that is obviously all different for me.
“Now I have something to look forward to every day when I go home, with her mom and her. And I think it makes me a better professional, too, because I have responsibilities every day. I can’t just go and hang out with my friends. I can’t do things that will keep me up late because I’ll have to wake up in the middle of the night or early in the morning, so I think it makes me better.”
For Shea, with his laid-back charisma and unconventional style, it is also a challenge to balance his new responsibilities with still being, well, Brek.
“It won’t change me, I don’t think; I am who I am,” he admitted. “I’m laid back and chilled, but I think that’s what her mom’s there for. She can be the strict one, if you will. But I think I can be a father figure, and be myself at the same time.”
Orlando fans shouldn’t be alarmed that one of their big-name stars is going soft on them, though. His MLS targets remain the same – to be a winner and see his team into the playoffs.
“It’s pretty clear what our goal is,” he explained. “As a team, we have to make the playoffs, and that’s more than a reasonable goal. If we had just finished a few more games, we would have been there last year.
“[Coach] has told us he just wants us to play well like we did last year but to finish our games, to play the way we know how to play and not have silly giveaways that put us in bad spots. If we defend as a whole and finish games better than we did last year, we will be in the playoffs.”