By Ridge Mahoney
If Charlie Davies isn't all the way back, he's headed in the right direction.
His tearful interview following a two-goal burst by which D.C. United downed Columbus, 3-1, on the opening weekend of MLS season No. 16 is a poignant and inspiring reminder of what the league presents to its fans and those youngsters who aspire to one day play in its stadiums.
Like the amazing stoppage-time winner Landon Donovan scored against Algeria at the World Cup last summer, MLS is now a vital component of “the human drama of athletic competition,” as former “Wide World of Sports” host Jim McKay once intoned during that show’s famous intro. Ridiculed for its byzantine rules, chided for its cheapness, and derided for its caliber, MLS is nevertheless etching a legacy invisible to viewers of “SportsCenter” yet very vivid to its followers.
“The thrill of victory, and the agony of defeat,” is all part of it, too, and in the saga of Davies that transcends wins and losses. Davies edged terribly close to the ultimate defeat and that 3-1 win is a victory worth infinitely more than three points. Images and words can be powerful tools in what Donovan sees as the slow, steady building of a tradition and culture in a land swamped by NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL, NASCAR, MMA and HBO.
“When I speak about the World Cup last summer, what we were able to do, I hear people say, ‘Well then how come MLS attendance didn’t go up after the World Cup?’” said Donovan in a preseason interview. “The reality is that you may gain a few fans in the short-term, but in the long-term what we did is inspired a lot of young kids who one day may choose soccer instead of volleyball or basketball or football, because they want to be the next Clint Dempsey or the next Tim Howard. We probably also inspired some kids who never kicked a soccer ball who think they could be the next Jozy Altidore or Michael Bradley.”
Speaking of Davies directly, Donovan said, “We all know Charlie’s been through a lot, more than most people go through in a lifetime. We’re all pulling for him.”
A goal Davies scored against Toronto at the Carolina Challenge Cup prior to the opener against Columbus displayed his awareness of space and timing, his balance and quickness, and the power and precision of his shooting. On the right side of the box, under moderate pressure, he collected a ball and turned away from his marker to blast a shot into the top corner, near post.
Yes, it was preseason, and yes, it was Toronto, yet still the goal displayed the sharpness of body and thought that earned him a contract with Swedish club Hammarby, a transfer to French club Sochaux, and call-ups to the U.S. national team. By taking the ball and the responsibility at RFK Stadium for the penalty kick that doubled United’s 1-0 lead, Davies displayed yet another characteristic critical to an American who seeks European soccer glory: courage.
Davies initially spurned MLS to sign with Hammarby, and in his first season endured months on the bench before a season-finale hat trick revived his status and confidence. He nailed 14 Swedish League goals the following season, and started off well in 2008-09 with four goals in the first nine games. He sat out five games for an elbowing foul that bloodied the mouth of an opponent, and moved to Sochaux in the summer of 2009.
The rest of the story to date is well-documented, including being stopped by French police last October for speeding nearly a year after the car crash that almost took his life. Davies maintains he initially lied to French police to cover for teammate Jacques Faty, who Davies says was actually driving when the vehicle was clocked at 125 miles per hour.
Any American wishing to make it overseas embarks on a steep climb, but it’s harshest for forwards. Getting a spot on the squad and forcing your way into the first team and earning playing time are difficult enough obstacles, as dozens of Americans who have failed can attest. Forwards must do more: they must score and create goals, and every forward must also fight through barren spells when good play and smart touches are betrayed by defenders’ blocks and goalkeepers’ saves and posts and crossbars and phantom offside flags. A fired coach, a minor injury, a run without goals … all can be tickets to obscurity.
Davies won’t be under the same pressures he endured in Europe, yet nevertheless he’ll need to show good judgment. Another elbow to an opponent’s face or late-night speeding ticket will be just as serious as they were in the past. United has given him the backing of management, coaches, teammates and staff members, and fans all over the country are in his corner. If he fails them, he fails himself.
By taking and making that penalty kick Davies displayed the resolve necessary for a goalscorer to succeed in any part of the world. Only he can overcome distractions and temptations away from the playing field. He is now a part of the human drama that is MLS.