By Ridge Mahoney
Like fellow 30-somethings Chris Wondolowski and Kyle Beckerman, it took Brad Davis a long time to be taken seriously as a national team player.
In this case, ‘"seriously" means a candidate to play in a World Cup, and the saga of Davis might be the most dramatic. One can’t say his national team career stalled, because it never really got going prior to the hiring of Jurgen Klinsmann in 2011.
“I truly thought my national team opportunity was over a couple of years ago and then I got the opportunity to go into a January  camp and told myself I was going to go and make the most of it,” says Davis the day after the 23-man World Cup roster was named prior to the Azerbaijan game. “Thankfully I’m standing here today.”
He played just seven U.S. games last year (two starts, two assists) and probably earned an upgrade to "serious" status in an otherwise meaningless game. By the time it played Panama last October in the final game of the 10-match Hexagonal campaign, the USA had already qualified. Klinsmann called up a squad of mostly MLS players that included the Dynamo midfielder.
Davis hadn’t played four days previous in a 2-0 defeat of Jamaica, but with the U.S. trailing in Panama City, 1-0, early in the second half, Klinsmann replaced right back Brad Evans with Davis and dropped Alejandro Bedoya into the defensive role. Eight minutes later, Davis arrowed a corner kick onto the goalmouth to Michael Orozco and the game was tied.
Panama scored to re-gain the lead and the 90 minutes ended that way, but the Americans weren’t done. In the second minute of stoppage time, Davis uncorked one of his left-footed serves and Graham Zusi headed it home. A minute later, Terrence Boyd relayed a long Brad Guzan punt to Aron Johannsson, who scored a stunning winner.
What Davis displayed at Panama City wasn’t novel though for him the setting certainly was. “It’s funny how it takes a great cross against Panama for him to get a little bit of credit nation-wide, but we’ve been seeing it all the time,” says Dynamo head coach Dominic Kinnear, who brought Davis to the Earthquakes in a trade during the 2005 MLS SuperDraft.
“I don’t think Brad thought anything was happening for him on the national team front but all of a sudden a change of scenery does him a world of good.”
The pre-Klinsmann national team career of Davis is spottier than those seven 2013 appearances: a grand total of five games combined in 2005, 2008 and 2010. And Klinsmann’s hiring had no immediate effect on Davis, either; he didn’t play for the national team at all in 2012.
Yet he obviously hadn’t given up hope and let his work rate or determination slip. If anything, his dedication and commitment had increased. He helped Houston win back-to-back MLS Cups after the team departed San Jose prior to the 2006 season and led it to another pair of consecutive appearances in 2011 and 2012.
“We’re extremely happy for Brad,” says Dynamo assistant coach Steve Ralston, who like Kinnear played for the USA but never made a World Cup squad. “We feel like it’s well-deserved. For us to have one of our players representing the U.S. in Brazil, it’s great. Most importantly, it’s for himself and all the work he’s put into it. It’s very rewarding for him.
“For a long time, he wasn’t a part of the national-team picture, but he dedicated himself and remolded himself as far as his fitness and things like that. He’ll be the first one to tell you he changed a lot of what he did off the field – his diet and workouts and really looking after himself – and he’s come a long way to get his chance with the national team and do well while he’s there. It’s great for him.”
Did it help Davis to have two former national team players on the Houston coaching staff? Kinnear says he and Davis never directly addressed the issue, yet his game has broadened the past few seasons to encompass greater defensive commitment and a knack for using the middle as well as the flanks. He's one of the few left-footed midfield options for Klinsmann, who has deployed DaMarcus Beasley at left back and has watched Brek Shea fall out of contention for a U.S. place.
“No, I never talk about the national team with any of these guys, just concentrate on what they’re doing here, and if they do well enough here, the guy may give somebody a chance,” says Kinnear. Davis, 32, has been one of the league’s most productive midfielders since launching his career as a MetroStar in 2002. He led the league in assists with 16 in 2011 and is usually in the top 10. For his career, he topped the 100 mark last year, and is one of only seven MLS players to do so. (Ralston is the all-time leader with 135.)
“He puts up good numbers. He’s a threat,” says Kinnear. “If we were a team that likes to hoot and holler about their players he might get a little more credit.”
There was a bit of hooting and hollering that night at Stanford when Davis and former Houston teammate Wondolowski found out they were going to Brazil. Wondo’s emergence in the past year after many seasons of scuffling at the fringes of the national team is a remarkable story, and his prowess at scoring goals parallels what Davis has done setting them up.
A few days after the announcement, Wondolowski started and Davis came off the bench against Azerbaijan. Wondo nailed a pair of headers on frame that were saved as the Americans tried to break open a goalless game. Davis’ entry and that of a few other players helped crack the blockade.
He nearly earned a penalty kick by dribbling to the edge of the penalty area before being fouled. His free kick from the left side sparked the scramble from which Mix Diskerud scored to break the deadlock, and with a corner kick to the near post assisted on Johannsson’s clinching goal in a 2-0 victory. Prowess on set plays is not his only attribute but it certainly helped him book a ticket to Brazil.
“I can’t tell you how serious we were about it or whatever, but with the mindset we both had, we both wanted it, I tell you that,” says Davis. "That was a hundred percent serious, but you never know. We both wanted it, for sure."