This installment of U.S. Soccer's ongoing 90-Year Anniversary Articles Series is a Q&A with longtime U.S. Men's National Team standout Rick Davis. As a one of the American stars of the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, Davis had a wide-ranging career, which included making a name for himself on the star-studded New York Cosmos roster after leaving college early and representing the United States at two Olympic Games. From 1977 to 1988, Davis scored seven goals in 36 games, including one just six minutes into his first cap on Sept. 15, 1977.
Tell us about the soccer landscape in the 1980s.
Rick Davis: "The 80s for me were a transitional period of time. You had the North American Soccer League (NASL), which was the prominent professional outdoor league and had so much success in the late 70s, but was starting to subside a little bit. Some of the teams were beginning to recognize the financial woes of not having bigger attendance, larger sponsorships and more television revenue. From probably 1981 to 1985, when the league ultimately closed, it was not a particularly good time for the game professionally. The indoor league that a number of guys were playing in (the MISL), experienced the same thing. It had done relatively well in the late 70s and did really well in the early 80s, and with its success it seemed to be the direction that professional soccer was going. What a lot of professional players had to decide was whether they wanted to go play outdoor soccer abroad, or if they wanted to stay here and play indoors. So, it wasn’t a good time for the development of the American player. On the youth side though, the game continued to grow by leaps and bounds in both the number of players and qualities of those players. You basically had two different things happening at the same time."
What was your experience like playing in the NASL?
RD: "My experience playing in the NASL was both unique and incredible. When I say it was unique I’m alluding to the players I got to play with. The best way for me to put it into perspective is to explain that when I was a kid there really weren’t any American players for me to look up to. There wasn’t really much of a professional outdoor league that you could watch in the 60s and early 70s. So what my generation did was we watched what we could of the game internationally. And at that time it certainly wasn’t anything like it is today where you can get games through a number of different cable channels. The players I grew up with and idolized or looked up to were guys like Franz Beckenbauer, Pele and George Best. Then, suddenly, I was 18 years old and decided to join the professional ranks. Someone tells me, ‘You’re going to play a game that you absolutely love; we’re going to give you the opportunity to play with people that as a kid you idolized; we’re going to put you in an environment where it would be almost more difficult to not grow and learn and develop; and were going to pay you to do it.’ It was pretty incredible. It was kind of a culmination of a dream."
Tell us about your time with the 1984 and 1988 Olympic teams.
RD: "As an American it was huge and obviously it was a wonderful experience for those who got to experience it. The two were very different Olympics though. The one in Los Angeles was different because it was here in the United States, and it was a much more comfortable experience in 1984 than in Korea in 1988. One of the things I think the average American player at that time was doing was vying for attention to make soccer a greater spectator sport and grow the game that much more. So, to have the Olympics to use as a vehicle was something we all looked at as a great opportunity. It started off well when we beat Costa Rica 3-0, but we got off track a little bit when we lost to Italy in our second game. We had a good opportunity to advance out of group play with a tie or a win against Egypt, but we just couldn’t pull it off and it ended kind of abruptly. As for Korea in 1988, we all had greater confidence in our ability to compete. There was an attitude change in my generation, and we felt pretty confident. We went in there and didn’t get the result we wanted against Argentina in our first game. We actually were up on them 1-0 for most of the game and then gave up a penalty kick in the last couple of minutes. The game against Korea was a struggle since it was in Korea. They just shelled us. It was almost like we defended for a full 90 minutes. Then we lost to the Soviet Union team. The funny thing was we had so much more confidence to compete in the 1988 Olympics, but I realized that was the beginning of the change of the American player. Suddenly, it wasn’t the case of only a couple of players on the team who could compete internationally. We started to develop more and by the time 1990 rolled around we had qualified for the World Cup. The 90s are probably some of the best years in terms of success that our National Teams have ever had."
Was the Costa Rica game in the 1984 Olympics a game you remember fondly?
RD: "That particular game I remember walking out into the stadium where there was a huge pro-American crowd, which was something we didn’t run into very often. There was a lot of excitement and euphoria surrounding the team and for a kid like myself that grew up in this country where the Olympics were king it was a pretty incredible thing. To have the game go the way it did was even more special, not only for the team, but also on a personal basis because I believe I scored. To have all of that happen was pretty exciting. (Editor’s Note: Davis scored two goals in the 3-0 win.)"
Playing for the Cosmos in the NASL, was it difficult to make an impact as an American player in a foreign-dominated league?
RD: "I think it was actually very difficult. When you look at the rules that said you have to have two North Americans on the field at any given time it means the selection of players is no longer merit based. You’re basically saying we’ll get rid of 99 percent of the rest of the world and now you have the opportunity to compete and show that you’re the best American or North American to earn these positions. So, although the rules were there to help, in many ways they hurt because it created the perception that our players couldn’t compete at that high level. During my time with the NASL I didn’t believe that to be the case. And as players came along, I think they were testimony to that. There were a number of American players who I think could play, but opportunities were not abundant, so it was a difficult period of time. Relating it for me, I never believed I was the best or had more ability than all of the other people. I think I just had an attitude that was conducive to the environment. I remember a good college prospect boasting about the success his team had in the NCAA Championships and (Franz) Beckenbauer asking him what a NCAA Champion was. He explained it to Franz and then Franz remarked, 'When you’re a World Cup champion we can talk about things.' I think that kind of personified the perspective not only of players in the league at the time, but also of the management and the general public that Americans had to have an opportunity, but it wasn’t merit based. What helped me was that my attitude toward the game wasn’t that I was as good (as the foreign players) or ready to compete. Rather, I was like, ‘Wow. I have an opportunity to play with some great players and some of the greatest minds in the game. I want to soak up and learn every bit as I can.’ I think that endured me to the Franz Beckenbauers of the world, who then became mentors of mine. They became willing to say, ‘Hey this is someone who has a little bit of ability and is willing to listen and do something we might say, so I’ll work with him.’"
Tell us about your overall experience with the U.S. Men’s National Team.
RD: "The challenges we had were that a lot of our players in the NASL were not getting a lot of playing time. So when the National Team assembled to play it made it really, really difficult for us to be competitive. Adding to that, as the game grew in the United States and as players grew, one of the things we never seemed to have was a top goal-scoring player. A lot of my time with the National Team program was basically filling roles. When they didn’t have a goal scorer, suddenly they wanted me to be that player, and I’m not that kind of player. I’ll get goals, but it takes me 10 shots to get a goal, when it takes a goal scorer one or two. I felt a lot of pressure because I wanted the team to do well. I played in the midfield as well, where I was most comfortable, but people wanted me to be a playmaking midfielder. Again, that’s not me. I’m kind of a grunter at the end of the day. From time to time, we did have players who were goal scorers, but they weren’t always there. It was kind of an ever-changing environment for myself. In terms of the actual competition itself, the truth was we weren’t always very competitive. Certainly not in the early 80s, but by the mid 80s the players had some more opportunities to play a little more regularly. At this time, our best players were our younger players, so it was a difficult challenge to try and blend them with some of our more experienced players. We also went through a number of coaches at that time, which brought a lot of change. The way the team prepared was very different compared to how it is done today. Often we would get a notice that we were being invited in with the team, and at the same time we would receive the airline ticket. We’d meet at our international departure airport and a lot of the times it would be the first time the players would all be together. We had three days together where we were expected to not only get to know one another, but to sort out who would play where. Until we got into the late 80s and early 90s when it got a little more consistent, it was challenging."
Do you feel you had a hand in “bridging the gap” for American soccer?
RD: "I’d like to believe that I did, however my roots were more heavily set in the past. The players that were coming up were just better than I was. That time was the emergence of John Harkes, Tony Meola, Marcelo Balboa and Peter Vermes. To simply put it, these guys were just better. We were getting older and these guys were off and running."
You were one of the first players to forgo you college eligibility and go into the professional ranks. Do you think that was a good decision in the end?
RD: "In hindsight, absolutely it was a good decision for me. But, I still have some regrets because when someone forgoes college it is very difficult to get back into school. Unless you have a true blessing and have the opportunity to be involved in this game for an extended period of time and really be at the high end of it in terms of income opportunities, it is a rough decision to forgo college and then have a career that doesn’t go the way that you want it. For me, there were a couple of dynamics. I was playing with the national youth team and we had a training camp in Florida. Eddie Firmani, the head coach of the Tampa Bay Rowdies, scouted us and invited me to play with the team. I was ready to make the jump, but my parents pushed for a college education and said that I should get in college and soccer would be there in four years (after graduation). I ended up reluctantly going to Santa Clara University. What really made me leave college later was the competition at the college level. It certainly wasn’t what it is like today. I also wanted to play soccer all the time, but in college the team only played and trained for five or six months each year. I wanted to play much more, and I was concerned that my development was not going as well as I wanted. I met with my parents and ended up going to the New York Cosmos, where Firmani was then coaching. I believe it was the right decision for me, but I also have the benefit of being able to look back and say that I had a 13-year professional career and experiences and opportunities that I would not have otherwise had."