Charles Boehm - WASHINGTON, DC (Mar 7, 2012) US Soccer Players - Brad Davis sounded a bit wary over the phone, and understandably so.
We were speaking during the run-up to the US National Team's match in Houston at the end of January, in the midst of his first national team experience in years. For Davis, it was a precious opportunity to strive for the sustained international career denied to him by a range of circumstances over his decade in the pro game.
Thanks to me, he faced a variation of the same questions he’d entertained for most of January. What took him so long to get back here? Is the USA setup even remotely recognizable from two years ago when Davis last received a call up?
“I don’t really want to go too deep into this conversation, but it is a little bit different,” he said, pausing as he considered the difference between the US squad under Jurgen Klinsmann and his predecessor, Bob Bradley. “I guess it’s more lively, more free, more about being yourself and having fun and playing the game, camaraderie. But I found it a little bit difficult to, I guess, fit in in the past and really be myself, because any player plays well when they’re happy and they’re confident. I’ve been able to come in here and be myself.”
I thought of that conversation on Tuesday night as I watched Davis come off the bench to net the game-winning goal for his club team, the Houston Dynamo, in the 89th minute of their pivotal CONCACAF Champions League first-leg quarterfinal match against Santos Laguna.
The goal effectively rescued Houston's hopes of advancement in a tournament that remains an unconquered frontier for US clubs. It may yet go down in history as a fateful strike in that regard, though the Dynamo must defend their slim lead over 90 minutes at Santos' Estadio Corona in Torreon, a house of horrors for MLS visitors in the past. For Davis, it was the latest clutch moment in a career with many. It’s also a perfect antidote to the disappointment of his unsuccessful penalty kick in Houston's league opener against DC United on Saturday. For Davis, it’s always about “being himself,” at ease with who he is and his game.
“It’s my job,” Davis told MLSsoccer.com after the win over Santos Laguna. “I’m not on the starting sheet, so when you get the opportunity to come in, you’ve got to try and bring a spark to your team.”
The play also reflected the rewards from years of steady application in a stable, supportive environment in Houston. Davis' last three seasons are statistically the best of his career and he appears to be a significantly more effective player now than he was five or 10 years ago.
It's exactly the type of mid- to late-career evolution that seems more common in MLS, where the average age of first-team debuts is older than many leagues overseas and the transition from college to professional training environments can foster dramatic improvements. It also shows in the personal growth of players like Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore in demanding European settings.
In fact, Davis suggested that his main frustration with his disappointing national team experiences of the past was due to lack of critical assessment of his game.
“I never really got any feedback to take back,” he recalled. “The most I got back was 'You had a good camp,' stuff like that. I never really knew where I stood.”
Davis admitted that “it kind of bothered me for a little while,” but he set those frustrations aside and poured his energies into his MLS career with the Dynamo, and to great effect. He'd struggled with recurring injuries early in his career and he candidly admits that it took a holistic change of lifestyle, especially in terms of nutrition and training habits, to maximize his potential – a process which may actually be continuing before our eyes.
Therein lies a source of both frustration and hope for players, coaches, and fans alike. Because while we may lament the fact that some of our most talented players are still unfinished products, it also provides room for the quintessentially American process of self-improvement.
Davis did what he needed to do during the January camp, of course, impressing Jurgen Klinsmann enough to earn a place in the traveling party for last month's World Cup qualifier in Honduras. Though he did not see playing time in San Pedro Sula, his hopes for an Indian summer to his international career are still alive, and he can take heart from the knowledge that no one is a bigger fan of workaholic upstarts than the head coach of the US National Team.
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