By Grant Wahl
October 14, 2009

ARLINGTON, Va. -- This was not how the U.S. soccer team had intended to follow up its newly won World Cup berth. This was not how rising-star forward Charlie Davies had hoped to become a trending topic on Twitter.

Yet this is the grim reality following Davies' horrific Tuesday morning auto accident on the George Washington Parkway in Northern Virginia: One of the passengers, 22-year-old Ashley J. Roberta, of Phoenix, Md., has died. The as-yet-unidentified driver is in the hospital.

And Davies, 23, is facing an arduous six- to 12-month recovery and extensive rehabilitation after undergoing surgery for a broken right femur and tibia, a broken left elbow, facial fractures and a lacerated bladder.

Forget sports for a moment, or whether Davies will be able to resume his playing career and somehow bounce back in time for the World Cup in eight months. For now, it's enough to know that Davies is lucky to be alive.

"That all just doesn't seem important now," Davies' mother, Kathleen, told about the World Cup qualification that the U.S. clinched on Saturday night in Honduras. "It just shows you how quickly things can happen and your life can change overnight. It's heartbreaking for everybody involved."

Doctors inserted titanium rods in Davies' right tibia (one of the two long leg bones below the knee) and right femur (thigh bone). Davies will be hospitalized for at least a week, and additional surgeries will be required for his left elbow fracture and possibly the facial fractures, U.S. Soccer said.

"Injuries of this nature usually require a recovery period of six to 12 months and extensive rehabilitation," U.S. Soccer physician Dan Kalbac said in statement. "Due to Charlie's fitness level, his prognosis for recovery and his ability to resume high-level competition is substantially improved."

Davies has been a U.S. prospect since starring at Boston College, but he burst onto the national-team scene at the Confederations Cup in June. His goal in the first-round finale against Egypt set the stage for a remarkable 3-0 victory that qualified the Americans for the semifinals. Davies also provided the assist on Landon Donovan's breathtaking counterattack strike against Brazil in the final, one of the classic goals in U.S. Soccer history.

The Confederations Cup "was huge, to be frank," Davies told recently. "Going into it, I didn't have very high expectations. I was hoping to just help the team win and get into games. Fortunately, coach [Bob] Bradley gave me the chance against Egypt, and I never looked back."

Davies scored the lone U.S. goal against Mexico in a 2-1 loss at Estadio Azteca in August. He also got off to a promising start in his first season with Sochaux of the French league, earning playing time and scoring two goals in an early-season game against defending champion Bordeaux.

It's too early to know whether Davies will be able to return to full playing strength, and if so, exactly how long that might take. But if his history is any indication, Davies' recovery will not be lacking in effort. His father, Charles Kofi Davies, an immigrant from Gambia, was Charlie's soccer coach from age 6 to 15. The elder Davies drilled a yeoman's work ethic into his son.

"I remember when I was 7 years old," Charlie recalled recently, "I was dribbling from 4:00 in the afternoon until about 8:00 doing the same exact drill for four hours and crying in between doing the drills, and him just saying, 'Keep doing it until you get it right.' Finally, it got to be 8:30 and it was pitch-black, and I finally was doing it right. And we were able to go home. He took me to Taco Bell. That was his thing when I was a kid. If you score today and do well, I'll take you to Taco Bell afterward."

Davies is also one of the few soccer players I have met who was also an accomplished schoolboy wrestler. Wrestling is an extreme sport, training-wise, and Davies excelled, winning three New England championships at the Brooks School in North Andover, Mass., and placing third in the nation at 145 pounds during his senior year. "Wrestling was great for balance, strength and mental toughness," Davies said. "Self-discipline is a big thing in wrestling, and that has helped me in soccer as well."

Now he'll need that more than ever. As he begins the long road to recovery, Davies will realize that he's not alone. His U.S. teammates are supporting him, and so are the fans, who plan on performing a salute to No. 9 at the U.S.-Costa Rica game Wednesday night, standing and cheering for the entirety of the game's ninth minute.

When Davies was a wrestler, his go-to move, he said, was the Bearhug. At RFK Stadium, figuratively, he'll be getting a warm one back.

Other news in advance of Wednesday's final U.S. World Cup qualifier (8 p.m. ET, ESPN2, Galavisión):

The U.S. has essentially zero chance to earn a World Cup seed. As much as the U.S. would like to earn one of the eight coveted top seeds for the World Cup draw on Dec. 4, a close look at the numbers reveals that it's basically impossible. Why is a seed so important? Simple: The eight seeded teams (the top seven teams per FIFA's seeding formula, plus host South Africa) are put into one pot during the draw, which means they won't have to play against any of the other seeded teams in the group stage.

How does FIFA arrive at its seeding values? In the draw for the 2006 World Cup, half of the value came from a team's performance in the previous two World Cups (with the most recent World Cup worth twice as much as the one before that). The other half of the seeding value came from a team's average place in the FIFA rankings at the end of the previous three years.

If we apply that formula to the teams likely to be in this year's World Cup draw, the chart at right illustrates what we get.

As you can see, the U.S. would need to leap four teams to get one of the golden seeds -- and there are only three teams above the U.S. that have yet to clinch World Cup berths.

There still may be some variability in the seed values between now and the draw. FIFA could tweak its formula. Teams might rise and fall a bit in the FIFA rankings. And a few teams expected to reach the World Cup might still choke.

But a seed for the U.S.? Not happening.

Getting misquoted isn't fun. After the U.S. beat Honduras on Saturday, I began our mixed-zone interview of Donovan by congratulating him on clinching a World Cup berth. His response: "Yeah, we beat the best team in CONCACAF." Huh? Turns out that a Honduran newspaper had run a big article on Saturday in which I was quoted saying Honduras was the best team in CONCACAF. The U.S. players passed it around at lunch and found it to be useful bulletin-board material.

There was only one problem: I never said anything close to it. I did give an interview to a reporter for a Honduran paper in Miami last week, but that ludicrous statement wasn't part of it. If those sorts of things motivate the U.S. team, though, I'd be happy to provide more ammo for Wednesday night's game against Costa Rica:

"Costa Rica is the best team in CONCACAF."*

(* Don't really think so.)

Check back Wednesday night for updates, commentary and postgame reaction from the U.S.-Costa Rica World Cup qualifier in Washington, D.C.

Grant Wahl's New York Times Best Seller, The Beckham Experiment, is in bookstores everywhere. You can order it here. You can also find him on Twitter.

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