It’s likely that at some point during Saturday evening’s meeting between the New England Revolution and visiting Toronto FC, perhaps during a pre-match embrace or a short chat following the final whistle, Charlie Davies will flash back to the last time he shared a field with his friend, Jozy Altidore.
It was, for the record, on Oct. 10, 2009, in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, where the U.S. national team clinched a World Cup berth with a win over Los Catrachos. Davies, a dynamic 23-year-old striker who burst into the international scene with goals at the ’09 Confederations Cup and in a World Cup qualifier at Estadio Azteca, made way for Altidore, then 19, in the 79th minute. But there was every reason to believe the pair would be starting together the following summer in South Africa.
“We’ve joked about it in the past,” Davies told SI.com this week. “I’ve gotten that from Landon [Donovan], from a bunch of people: ‘Imagine if you guys were still playing together. That would’ve been a good, 10-year partnership and how dangerous you guys would’ve been.’ … But things happened and that’s life and we just got to move on.”
Davies said there will be a bit of a “full circle” feeling on Saturday as his Revs (5-2-3), unbeaten in eight, host Altidore and TFC (3-5-0). But only a bit. Circles are uniform, smooth and predictable. Davies’ journey from the moment he left the pitch in San Pedro Sula has been anything but. Two days later, he was involved in a horrific, late-night car accident in Arlington, Virginia, that killed a fellow passenger and left him with multiple leg, arm and facial fractures, a lacerated bladder and bleeding on the brain.
Missing the World Cup was just the start of Davies’ long road back to the field. While Altidore’s path led through the Netherlands, England, two World Cups and ultimately to a reported $30 million payday in Toronto, Davies wrestled with the physical and emotional ramifications of the crash. The game-breaking speed was gone for a while, and one leg remains shorter than the other. But there also was anger, doubt and confusion.
His rush to prove himself capable and the compulsion to play the same way he always had—the quest to catch up to where he felt he should have been—often left Davies feeling flustered or frustrated.
“He never got settled,” New England coach Jay Heaps said.
Davies was loaned out by France’s FC Sochaux to D.C. United and started the 2011 MLS season with five goals in five games. Then he trailed off. He took some public heat after being fined by the league for diving, and by September he no longer was a regular starter. The following summer, Davies moved to Denmark but failed to find the net for Randers FC. It was time to step back and re-calibrate.
“Coming in from a year-and-a-half off to being back playing professional games where my body and my mind weren’t on the same page yet, there was a lot of frustration,” Davies recalled. “There were a lot of different things I had to deal with during that time, obviously testing my patience and my professionalism, and it was a learning experience that has obviously helped me to where I’m playing at my best now. I needed to go through that to be able to be where I’m at now.”
Heaps knew and trusted his fellow New Englander. The manager was convinced that in the right environment, and if challenged in the right way, Davies would rediscover his scoring touch. He played four games for the Revs in the summer of 2013 season and then signed permanently last year.
“One thing I really wanted to push him to do when he got here was to get settled with what you’re doing off the field, dive into this community, dive into the people who know him. He’s from here. He has family here and is a part of New England, so can say, ‘I’m going to be here, and I can let that anxiety go away.' And I think it’s shown. He’s made this his team. The locker room loves him,” Heaps said.
Davies learned patience—especially when sitting on the bench in 2013—and the value of “doing the dirty work first.” Heaps’ system calls for a lone striker who has to pressure the opposing defense, carve out slivers of space in the penalty area, hold the ball and connect with teammates or make runs that open lanes for more withdrawn attackers. Davies couldn’t just wait for service. He had to help set the table.
“Once I programmed that into my brain, I reaped the benefits from it,” Davies said. “Jay was really harping on having me run around, terrorizing the defense, and that causes turnovers and turnovers turn into goals … That’s played a huge part, and obviously him having faith in me to get the job done has been huge. Being comfortable with a coach—you can talk with him when things aren’t going your way and you have somebody who can kind of build you back up and not let you question things.”
Combined with his eagerness and ability to evolve, Davies has the good fortune of playing one of the league’s most talented teams.
“They make my job easy. I don’t have to focus on scoring goals. I just have to not rush things and I know I’m going to get my chances,” he said.
With the likes of Lee Nguyen, Kelyn Rowe, Juan Agudelo, Teal Bunbury and Chris Tierney behind him, Davies is destined to find himself on the end of some good passes if he’s able to make the right runs.
He turned a corner last fall, scoring four times during New England’s four-game run to the MLS Cup final. Davies and the Revs took about a month to find their feet this spring, but they’re humming now.
When he sees Altidore on Saturday, he’ll do so on a league-high four-game scoring streak. One of the goals, tallied last weekend at Orlando City, came after Davies exploited space with a bit of speed. But the others were gritty or gutsy conversions of a teammate’s cross. They all count the same, and they all mean a ton.
“When you go on a streak like this and the team is doing well, there’s just a lot of hopefulness with me. I’ve finally turned the page and now I can get back to doing what I’ve always wanted to do … doing what makes me happy and in turn doing the right thing for my family, the right thing for my club. That’s just the way I want to live, just doing the right thing,” he said.
It may not be a full circle. Davies can’t match Altidore’s caps or contract. But a few weeks shy of 29 and with as much ahead of him as behind, Davies is where he wants to be. He can meet his friend on level terms.
“He’s scoring goals now because he’s doing those things that are putting himself in a better position to score,” Heaps said. “I think a new Charlie is being born, a more complete player and right now, I can say he certainly still has attributes athletically that are better than any forward I’ve seen up close. He has breakaway pace. He has strength that comes out of nowhere because he’s so compact and strong. He’s getting better. I’ve seen those improvements over the past two years, and he’s still getting back to full fitness and he’s understanding his body now. Add that tactical awareness and now he’s becoming even more of a complete player.”