Los Angeles, Ca. – The halls and meeting rooms of the Los Angeles Convention Center were jam-packed last week with a veritable who’s who of American soccer at the annual National Soccer Coaches Association of America (NSCAA) Convention.
That the event was home to the NWSL Draft and the MLS SuperDraft only amplified the phenomenon, with coaches and officials from all of the teams in each league mingling with stars of the game past and present.
Look, there is Eric Wynalda. Was that Tab Ramos who just walked by? Spanish legend Raul? Yep. U.S. WNT 99’er Shannon MacMillan? Check. Jozy Altidore stopped by and both Bruce Arena and Jurgen Klinsmann gave talks, as did Rick Davis.
Wait, who is that last one? Rick Davis? He used to go by Rickie. Does that help? No? The face of American soccer and the best American player in the game in the late 1970’s and throughout the 1980’s? Still nothing? Ok, I’ll fill you in.
Davis began his professional soccer career in 1977 with the New York Cosmos. Not the Cosmos 2.0 from the NASL reboot of 2011, and certainly not Cosmos who have just been saved from extinction by a new owner, also saving the NASL, by the way.
No, Davis at 19 years old, was lacing them up alongside Pele, Franz Beckenbauer and the rest of the Cosmos international superstars, and going toe to toe with the likes Johan Cruyff and George Best on a weekly basis in front of crowds of over 70,000 fans at Giants Stadium.
Davis was at the NSCAA Convention promoting a soccer based product and was asked to speak on his career. As Davis began his talk about a dozen people occupied the seats in a room meant for a couple of hundred. But Davis was upbeat, friendly, as he invited the group the come closer. Most of the audience, primarily men of a certain age, this reporter included, were well aware of Davis’ career. Some had seen him play live, others on the sporadically broadcast games of that era.
But Davis seemed very much at peace with his place in the U.S. Soccer story. Modesty and self-deprecation marked his presentation and afterward when Davis sat down with GotSoccer there was no hesitation when we asked if Davis felt that he had come along 10 years too soon.
“I don’t,” Davis responded. “There’s a lot of reasons for that,” the former all action midfielder began. “The first is that I want to be realistic about what my abilities were.”
Davis then spoke about the group that followed him. Tab Ramos, John, Harkes, Marcelo Balboa, etc, mainstays of the 1990 team that ended a 40 year U.S. absence from the World Cup, a team that injury and Father Time prevented Davis from being a part of.
“One of the realities that hit me pretty hard when I was playing,” Davis told GotSoccer, “was how good they were, or more specifically, how much better they were coming into that level of the sport at that time than my generation was.”
This new generation told Davis that, “Rick, the end is near,” the former U.S. captain relayed with a chuckle. All these years later Davis said he was ok with that realization.
“I never wanted to be one of those athletes that hung around until the crowd booed him out of the stadium.” Davis shared the moment he knew for certain that it was time to move on.
“Specifically, there was a single event at a training camp for the national team when Tab was there, that Tab and I had an encounter.” “Again,” Davis explained, “very nondescript, it was just during a scrimmage and Tab ended up taking the ball from me, where all of a sudden it was like, wow!”
Davis called the encounter, “a time ending moment,” before pivoting back to the original question: did Davis regret the timing of his career? “Well,” Davis said, “I don’t know if Rick Davis fits in today’s game.”
Despite the third person reference, Davis revealed a solid sense of perspective saying, “there were a lot of things that I would never want to give up.” Davis referenced his family life with his wife and seven children.
And of his time with the Cosmos, Davis told GotSoccer, “it was a special time for the game, and the Cosmos,” and Davis opined, “I don’t think they’ll ever be duplicated, as a soccer team.”
“So,” Davis summed up, “how do you say you want to give up playing with Pele, Beckenbauer, I mean these were childhood idols of mine.”
Davis, who retired at 32 in 1990 without ever having played in a World Cup seems genuinely content with his legacy and more importantly, happy with his life.
He spoke to his small audience of his love for the game. A game he is still involved in at the youth level. Davis is the former Executive Director of AYSO, whose motto of Everybody Plays is a different approach to the hyper-competitive models of other associations and one that seems to fit Davis’ low-key style.
Davis, the onetime “face of American soccer,” jokes that “I was on the national team when we were lousy.” That the team wasn’t great is true enough. But despite the collapse of the NASL in 1984, leaving most of the American players to compete in a World Cup Qualifying campaign while earning a living playing indoor soccer, the U.S. MNT did come whisker close to qualifying for the 1986 World Cup in Mexico.
For Davis the team’s 1-0 loss to Costa Rica in May 1985 that eliminated the U.S. from Mexico 1986 counts as one of the two biggest disappointments of his career.
32 years later Davis concedes that accepting that loss, “was very challenging.” “Here’s the story that was supposed to be,” Davis said. “You know, Rick was supposed to enjoy it all these years, you know retired as one of, you know, the best known or whatever American soccer players; after the United States qualifies and he participates in a World Cup.”
The modesty and the self-deprecation are strange bedfellows with the third person references but Davis’ easy smile and relaxed manner render the self-referential moments as more a tick than a personality trait.
Davis’ discussion of his omission from the squad that would go on to represent the U.S at the 1990 World Cup illustrates just that.
“Then 1990 came. It was very much the end of my career,” Davis notes, “and Bob Gansler, who is a good friend of mine (and the 1990 U.S. coach) made a decision to not include me on the team.”
“Well,” Davis told GotSoccer at a 32-year remove, “it was the right decision.” “I was coming off of; I had hurt my knee and we had this whole new generation of players that were coming in that were just better.”
“That,” said Davis, “was disappointing. That was one of the disappointments that sometimes you just have to live with,” and Davis concluded with a shrug, “that was one of mine.”