Ussoccer.com continues its “Where are They Now” series by catching up with former Men’s National Team midfielder Rick Davis.
The North American Soccer League bred not only the 1994 World Cup and Major League Soccer, but also the millions of kids who were inspired to lace up cleats – like Rick Davis.
Davis was one of the first disciples of the NASL, graduating from the youth fields of California to play alongside Franz Beckenbauer, Giorgio Chinaglia and Johan Neeskens at the New York Cosmos and give America hope –and notice to the world – that the United States could play soccer.
“Ricky Davis was miles ahead of everybody else in those days, from his first start,” said Ray Hudson, who played in the NASL and later coached the Miami Fusion and D.C. United.
Hudson, now an analyst with BeIN Sport TV and commentator on SiriusXM radio, recalled one of his American teammates who “couldn’t kick a bag of cement.” But then he saw Davis and a few others, like Dan Canter.
“These were players of definite quality,” Hudson said.
After more than a decade of NASL tutoring, Davis hit the league with its highest-profile team, playing a significant role in helping the team to the 1978, ‘80 and ‘82 titles, winning the North American Player of the Year in his second season (1979) and being selected to represent the United States at the FIFA World All-Star Game in 1982.
Like Kyle Rote Jr. before him in the 1970s, Davis was the face of American soccer throughout the 1980s, a fair-haired, well but soft-spoken and talented player, whose modesty continued with him past retirement and to his current occupation as a restaurateur.
“I was fairly realistic. I was a grunter,” the ever-humble, 54-year-old Davis said. “My mind was a sponge. Any advice, I was all ears. That was what endeared to me the (Vladislav) Bogicevics, the Beckenbauers, the Chinaglias. How can you not learn being around that? My role was to get the ball so the talent, Bogicevic, Chinaglia or Pelé can do their thing.”
While Rote won scoring titles, Davis won league titles with the most-famous team in the league. Even as the NASL neared its end, it was still a foreign-dominated league. As Americans, Rote and Davis were pilgrims in their own country, uncommon as albinos.
“Kyle and Ricky were ahead of their time,” said former U.S. National Team coach Al Miller, who guided the Philadelphia Atoms to the 1973 NASL crown.
Davis and Rote shared a common soccer origin, the closed-circuit broadcast of the 1966 FIFA World Cup. While Rote watched the game at the invitation of a friend, Davis’ father was a doctor and one of his patients had tickets to the Los Angeles Forum for the event that he couldn’t use.
“Dad thought, ‘Hey, Rick plays soccer, he might like this,’” Davis recalled.
His rise through the California youth ranks hit overdrive in his teens when his high school coach, Al Mistri, suggested he get his “C” coaching license at a local course camp. Despite thinking, “Why do I want get a coaching license? I want to play,” Davis went anyways, and met Walt Chyzowych.
While Chyzowych’s brother, Eugene, was the U.S. Men’s National Team coach in 1973, Walt “did everything at the U.S. Soccer Federation” – including running coaching courses and eventually became National Team coach himself from 1976-80.
Instead of being a student, Davis was used by Chyzowych to “demonstrate everything” at the course, which led to introductions to U.S. Youth National Team coaches Angus McAlpine and Ray Klivecka. That resulted in Davis being invited to try out in Tampa, Fla., for the 1974 CONCACAF U-20 Championship team, which was scouted by Tampa Bay Rowdies coach Eddie Firmani.
Firmani courted Davis to sign with the Rowdies, but Davis’ parents thought a college education was more promising. Davis attended Santa Clara for a year, however, the NASL came calling again and now with Firmani in New York – and Klivecka as his assistant - the Cosmos drafted him.
“The beauty of it was, the league and the game needed something to hang its hat on,” Davis said. “To be a young American in the game, with a little ability, lot of enthusiasm, I could string a few words together, I wasn’t a media problem, I was here with the team with the biggest stars. The game needed something.
“I was the lucky bum who came along at the right time. It could have been others. It was like you walk in the door and you’re the millionth customer.”
Davis said he had opportunities to go to Europe but wanted to stay in the United States because he had “this thing about establishing the credibility of the American game,” he said. “If I went to Europe, it would have been ‘that’s where he learned game.”
And even when the NASL “began to crumble a bit,” Davis remained steadfast. He approached management at the Cosmos about a possible pay cut but didn’t want to “be the only one.”
They told him “why don’t you just move?” and he went indoors in 1983, becoming the biggest name to jump to the MISL since Cosmos goalkeeper Shep Messing did the same thing in 1978.
He joined the most popular team in the league, the St. Louis Steamers, who were filling the Checkerdome regularly with crowds of 17,000, and led them to the finals in his first season.
He remained the leader of the U.S. National Team throughout the 1980s, becoming captain and playing in the 1988 Olympics but sometimes given a role he was not suited for.
“When I went and played with the National Team, we struggled,” Davis explained. “They needed me to do things, and I wasn’t it. They needed a goal scorer, and I wasn’t that goal scorer. There’s not a lot of creativity to Rick’s game. My game was based on physical attributes; I was quick, with a little bit of speed.”
Davis played in the first two games of qualifying for the 1990 FIFA World Cup, helping win a two-leg series against Jamaica. But in late 1988, while Davis was playing for the Tacoma Stars, he was teaching a physical education class to kindergartners at his kids’ school.
While squatting down, he “felt his knee pop” and after surgery he raced to recover for a January National Team training camp to meet the demands of U.S. coach Bob Gansler. But his knee wasn’t ready, it swelled and more damage required more surgery. By the time he was able to get back to training it was nearing the next set of qualifiers in April. He signed with the Seattle Storm of the APSL for the 1989 season to bolster his fitness, but Gansler never called him into the team again.
He played one last season indoors with Tacoma in 1989-90, but after he missed the U.S. National Team’s return to the FIFA World Cup after a 40-year absence, he retired at the age of 32.
His post-playing career included being a television commentator, camp instructor, spokesman for Chiquita as part of the company’s sports marketing campaign, and even general manager of the APSL’s Los Angeles Salsa.
When the team folded, club owner William de la Peña bought Atletico Celaya in the Mexican first division and asked Davis to come along.
“I walked away and figured it was time to do something else,” Davis said.
He went to work for the Kaiser Permanante managed care consortium, but after three years was lured back to soccer to run the competitive program for the Junior United Soccer Association.
That led him to the American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO), one of the largest single sports outfits in the country, as a program coordinator and eventually its executive director.
But after spending nearly all of his life in Southern California, he and his wife Tina decided in 2003 to move to rural America for a better family life, particularly for their children.
“We wanted to change their environment, who they were hanging around a little bit. I love the organization, but family comes first,” he said.
They decided on Ellsworth, Kan., where his wife’s parents lived. AYSO asked him to remain, agreeing to a commuting arrangement, but after three years, it was enough.
He considered other things to do, but in a small town, 1 hour and 45 minutes from Wichita and three hours from Kansas City, options were limited. While eating at a local restaurant and talking with the owner, the discussion of selling the eatery came up, and soon enough – even “with no background in it,” the Davises were the proprietors of the Ellsworth Steakhouse.
It’s a long way from soccer, but like his career, Davis’ new venture is comparable to the way he sees his time in the game and the way others have portrayed it.
“I always kind of chuckle,” he said. “The more I reflect on the past, I’m way better now than when I was playing.”