Philadelphia, PA – Brek Shea's initial reaction was to laugh, year-old last Wednesday night when asked about his brief experiment as a defender earlier this season for FC Dallas.
Shea just completed a dominant performance off the bench for the United States against Mexico, assisting on the tying goal in a 1-1 draw at Lincoln Financial Field, and a horde of media had converged on the exciting young midfielder.
Safe on the players' side of a metal barricade, Shea easily handled the amount of attention justified from his Jack-in-the-Box play, which surprised everyone just 10 months after his woeful U.S. debut 16 miles away in Chester, Pa.
He was easily the most noticeable player on the field, not because of his wild blonde hair, and immediately placed himself under the unfair microscope that's locked in on every young international after even a decent performance.
Problem is, Shea was not just decent. But the only grade to label him would be incomplete. It would be unfair to stamp his showing. After all, can 30 minutes really serve as a big enough sample?
Yes, Shea is promising, no hiding that fact. And the way he's evolved since an attempt by Dallas coach Schellas Hyndman to turn him into a center back, opens the door (snaps it off its hinges, really) to a lot of possibilities.
Since the failed experiment, which eventually took Shea from the center of the defense to left back, and back into a role on the left wing, the Texas native has bundled all his skills into a package even Landon Donovan admires.
"It's a nightmare to play against him," Donovan said last week.
Shea combines tremendous pace, the quality and nerve to take opponents on ("If Brek's not the best, he's one of the best players at just getting the ball and going at people and putting people under pressure," Donovan admitted), and has matured enough in the last year to let his ability speak on the field.
"I was excited and nervous that night," Shea said, referring to his debut last year against Colombia. "I just got in there (against Mexico), relaxed and did what I had to do."
That's all Shea did when he started the MLS season at center back for Hyndman, an idea born out of his performances there on a Generation Adidas visit to Spain. Although the plan failed, Hyndman was quick to learn from his mistake.
Shea learned even more.
"When you have to play those defensive positions, you get a lot more respect for attackers," Shea said.
Shea got a first-hand perspective on stopping attackers and midfielders and he got a much better understanding of what defenders are attempting to do to stop offensive threats.
By understanding what he didn't want forwards to do to him when he was on the back line, he converted that knowledge into a way to break down opposing teams when back in midfield as an attacker.
Nine goals in 19 games since switching back to midfield followed an injury to 2010 MLS MVP David Ferreira, who fractured his ankle, while Shea has emerged as an MVP candidate himself this season.
"When I got a chance to go up there I just wanted to make the most of it, and I've been building off it ever since," said Shea, who has 10 goals - his most recent Saturday in a 2-2 draw against the Philadelphia Union.
New U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann took notice, and Shea was not just called into his first camp but was "on top of the list" to come on as a substitute against Mexico.
Shea understands one great 30-minute stretch doesn't earn a permanent place on the U.S., but he plans to do everything possible to maintain a role.
"Play consistently for my club team, and when I get called in, when I get a chance to play, make things happen," Shea said.
Dallas signed Shea to a four-year contract extension earlier this year, but it will be hard to prevent Shea from moving to Europe when the right situation comes along. That situation found Shea with the U.S.
But even that performance will fade from memory, as quickly as the media horde around Shea flocked to Donovan when he emerged from the locker room, unless it becomes the norm when Shea plays with the U.S.
Donovan earned his star status on the international level, but eventually - he is 29 - has to pass the torch. Maybe Shea - if he builds on his international games the way he's built on his MLS matches - will be there to accept the hand off and help take the U.S. to the next level internationally.
Considering Shea's role for his club - never mind his country - was undefined just months ago, you can only imagine his reaction to that possibility.