In his dream, the one in which he can feel the sun and smell the grass, Ricky Davis takes The Shot from 18 yards out. He says it's always 18 yards, and that he always puts it in the upper lefthand corner. If the dream were to come true, The Shot would sail on forever, carrying from sea to shining sea and landing in history. "It's incredibly vivid," says Davis. He says the dream first came to him when he was eight: In it he scores the goal that gives the U.S. its first World Cup soccer championship, and the victory establishes the sport for all time in this country.
Davis, 26, a midfielder and the premier American-born player, is captain of the U.S. national team that has already won the first of three qualifying rounds leading to the 1986 World Cup in Mexico City. The next tests are in a round robin in May against Costa Rica and Trinidad-Tobago, followed by the last qualifying round in the fall. "Just to reach the final field of 24 would be the most significant thing ever to happen to soccer in this country," Davis says. He still dreams of The Shot.
Reality on a cold gray January morning in St. Louis is something else. Davis and his teammates on the St. Louis Steamers of the Major Indoor Soccer League dress for practice in a locker room that opens onto the public men's room of the St. Louis Soccerhaus, an antiseptic cinder-block building. There is neither sun nor grass. Through the walls of the locker room comes the steady, muffled clank of iron from Bodybuilders, Inc., a workout gym next door. A stale, boozy smell wafts down from Jimmy's Upstairs, a restaurant and lounge. But at the moment, this is where U.S. soccer happens to be. Fans have turned from the outdoor NASL—its 1985 season, with three living franchises, down from 24 in 1980, is in grave jeopardy—and are flocking to the MISL. The league is headed toward an attendance record for the second consecutive year; at present St. Louis is No. 2 on the list with an average of 12,829. Davis reportedly earns $100,000 a year from the Steamers, yet the indoor game that affords him so much fame and fortune may also be a barrier to the fulfillment of his dream.
Let's be serious. The possibility that the U.S. might win the World Cup in 1986 is too remote even to consider. But the U.S. could win a berth in the final 24-nation field. "Getting to Mexico would say to the world, 'Look out. Here comes U.S. soccer,' " says Davis.
March 4, 1985
That, of course, would be U.S. soccer's second coming. Davis is a product of the first. He was a three-sport athlete at Damien High in La Verne, Calif. in the mid-'70s when the incomparable Pelé came from Brazil to play for the New York Cosmos. "Pelé made soccer something to look up to," says Davis, who became so fascinated by the sport in high school that he gave up baseball. A football receiver and safety of some note, he turned down 13 college scholarship offers and decided to play soccer as a walk-on at Santa Clara University, where he was a premed major. Davis's other dream was to become a physician like his father, Richard Sr.
Al Mistri, Davis's high school soccer coach, recalls that as a senior Davis was so much more proficient than the other players that he would "start a game at midfield, move up to forward if we needed a goal, then drop back and finish the game as a defender to protect the lead he'd given us."
Davis was just as spectacular at Santa Clara, where he was All-Far West as a freshman in 1977. But a season that started in September and was over by December wasn't enough for a young man beginning to contemplate a future in the sport. "I had to play year-round against the best possible competition," Davis says. That meant turning pro.
The NASL was in its heyday then, and several teams sought Davis's services. "But the significance of Ricky Davis turning pro," says former NASL and MISL goalkeeper Shep Messing, a native of the Bronx, "is that he was the first American wanted for his ball skills. Before Davis, Americans were thought of as goalies and defenders."
While some teams tried to woo Davis—Tampa Bay,' for instance, flew his parents into town and showed them a college Ricky could attend—the Cosmos signed him in 1977 by laying on a heavy dose of noblesse oblige. Pelé was to retire that year, but the Cosmos still had Giorgio Chinaglia, Franz Beckenbauer and Carlos Alberto, the grand court of imported soccer princes. Davis couldn't refuse an invitation to join that company.
"I wanted to find out fast if I had what it took," he says. "If I could play with the Cosmos, I could play anywhere."
In 1966, Richard Davis Sr. had taken 8-year-old Ricky to watch a World Cup game between West Germany and England on closed-circuit TV. "West Germany had one player who always did everything right," says Davis. "He'd make the perfect pass, run to the perfect place, knock an opponent down, then help him to his feet. I said to myself, 'That's the kind of player I want to be.' "
The player was Der Kaiser, Beckenbauer. "Eleven years later, when I walked into the Cosmos' dressing room for the first time as a player, my locker was next to Franz's. I thought, 'The Good Lord is showing me the path, and all I have to do is walk it.' "
That he walked it with Beckenbauer and Chinaglia enabled Davis to incorporate the best of two contrasting European styles into his naturally robust run-all-day American game. From Beckenbauer, whom he idolized, Davis learned the force of simplicity. And from Chinaglia, whom he feared, Davis learned the power of rage.
"It seemed that every day Franz told me, 'Ricky, it's the great player who takes a difficult situation and makes it simple. Don't try dribbling through three guys when one pass gets you out of trouble.' "
Chinaglia "intimidated the hell out of me," says Davis. Let the Cosmos be losing at halftime, "and Giorgio would come into the room and start throwing chairs and tables. I couldn't imagine Roger Staubach acting like that."
By 1979, Davis was a regular midfielder with the Cosmos and was named the North American Player of the Year. "I wanted to be big. Really big," says Davis. After cracking the Cosmos' lineup he began to change his game from hard-running and physical to one of grace and finesse. Davis-as-Pelé lasted through about four exhibition games before Chinaglia nailed him. Davis likes telling the story: "Giorgio says, 'What the hell do you think you're doing?' I tried to tell him I was trying new skills. 'You stink!' he yells at me. I started to say something else. 'You're terrible!' he yells. He tells me, 'I, Chinaglia, do not try to be what I am not. Be Ricky Davis.' "
That lesson, along with his ever-improving skills and wholesome good looks, has made Davis the most visible symbol of the American game. "Davis has replaced Shep Messing as the pinup boy of soccer," says Baltimore Blast coach Ken Cooper.
"True, but I have a better body," says Messing, who once helped publicize soccer by posing nude for Viva magazine. Such a thing would be unthinkable for Davis, whom U.S. national team coach Alkis Panagoulias calls "a magnet and a model for American youth."
"Put it this way," says Messing. "The difference between Ricky's image and mine is that I do Skoal chewing tobacco commercials, and he does Ivory soap."
Cruelly, just as Davis's fame began to grow, the NASL went into decline. The Cosmos offered to renew Davis's contract in September 1983 but were now clearly cost-conscious. "The money was acceptable, but I wanted a different payment schedule," he says. When the Cosmos refused to negotiate further, Davis made the only other move open to him—he accepted an offer from the Steamers. He moved his family—wife Kelly and daughters Leigh Ann, now 3, and Lauren, 1½—from New York to St. Louis. Son Ryan was born six months ago.
In 1983-84, Davis led the Steamers in scoring (36 goals, 57 points) and helped the team win the Western Division title; it lost to Baltimore in the playoff finals. He was also voted to the MISL all-star team. But it had not been a satisfying season; in fact, Davis had nearly quit.
"Rick had trouble adjusting to the indoor game," says Steamer coach Dave Clements. "Here he was getting hit every three minutes instead of every 15." Clements had Davis playing as a striker, a position that often left him standing in the penalty area with his back to the goal, a sitting duck for fouls from behind.
"Rick was a walking bruise last year," says teammate Don Ebert, who contends that a disproportionate number of hits were laid on Davis by foreign players. "Americans are supposed to be the peons of the soccer world, and [the foreigners] probably wonder, 'Who's this Davis to be where he is?' "
"Rick never bitched or moaned publicly," says Clements. But Kelly Davis says her husband told her at one point last year, "I don't need this. This isn't what I came here for." Kelly and Clements agree that Davis also suffered from Cosmos withdrawal. "He had to get the Cosmos out of his system," says Kelly.
Last summer, after he had captained the U.S. Olympic team and led it in scoring, Davis, at Kelly's and Clements's urging, accepted an invitation to play for a month with the outdoor Cosmos.
"Seeing what the Cosmos were then helped break the ties," he says. Indeed, they were a low-budget operation, and on Feb. 22 the onetime glamour team announced that it was dropping out of the MISL.
Back at a chilly Soccerhaus, Davis is engaged in an intrasquad scrimmage. He is playing this season as a withdrawn forward, a compromise between the pits and midfield that gives Davis full scope for his superb passing and creativity. And where, Davis says, "at least I can see the hits coming."
Even in a scrimmage, Davis's passes are splendid, easily controllable balls propelled as softly as space allows or as sharply as time demands. His shots, particularly those off his right foot, are thunderous volleys powered by hugely muscled legs that seem out of proportion to his 5'8", 160-pound frame.
Two brilliant Davis plays—an assist and a goal within 1:31—led the Steamers to a 4-3 upset of Western Division-leading San Diego Feb. 16 in St. Louis. With the Steamers down 3-2 and 1:45 remaining, Davis made a seeing-eye pass from the left boards, leading forward Daryl Doran so perfectly that Doran was at full stride when he slammed the ball into the lower left corner from 10 feet outside the penalty area. Then, with 14 seconds to play, Davis took Ebert's thigh-high pass off the left backboard and from six feet-out hammered the ball onto the turf so that it bounced under the crossbar and into the goal for the game-winner.
But this is indoor soccer, and neither the World Cup nor Davis's dream goal is indoor stuff. Though through last week he was second on the Steamers in scoring (19 goals, 21 assists, 40 points) and was a MISL all-star again, Davis still considers himself "an outdoor player learning the indoor game.
"If I play only one, I'm doing half of what I can do for U.S. soccer," says Davis. But this spring, Davis may have to choose between his job and his dream. While his contract allows him to miss up to three Steamer games to compete with the national team, that permission does not extend to the MISL playoffs, which run through May. If the Steamers, 17-16 through last week, reach the semifinals, a World Cup qualifying game could conflict with a MISL playoff date, forcing Davis to make a tough choice.
Even if there is no conflict, it will be difficult enough for Davis or any player to go directly from the staccato of the indoor game and its two-to three-minute shifts to the symphony of the outdoor game, in which most players stay on the field for 90 minutes. It would be like taking a dragster to Le Mans. But Davis could accept that handicap; it is doubtful that he would be able to accept not being in the race.
No one is sure how hard a line the Steamers will take if the issue is forced. So what happens if the Steamers refuse to release Davis for World Cup qualifying? Standing in a hotel lobby, Davis weighs the question.
"I know what happens," he says. "It would shake up a lot of people."
Would Ricky Davis go to the World Cup?
Davis doesn't answer. He stares at the floor, then lifts his head and looks out at the night through a hotel window. The window is about 18 yards away.