When Houston Dynamo midfielder Brad Davis entered Major League Soccer 10 years ago, the Miami and Tampa Bay clubs had just folded.
Davis, captain and talisman for the Dynamo, had been drafted by Tampa Bay and was picked up by the New York/New Jersey Metrostars and then was shipped to the Dallas Burn after one year. Doubts about the league’s viability persisted.
Davis ultimately went to the San Jose Earthquakes and that club morphed into the Houston Dynamo in another MLS franchise shuffle. He is the sole remaining player from that era.
It was a less than audacious start for a precocious young college soccer player with big ambitions. Davis survived those early shaky years to become a stalwart in this league — and a barometer for how far the MLS has come in just a decade.
Davis, a natural left-footed midfielder, will be leading the Dynamo into Qwest Field tonight against the Seattle Sounders at 7 p.m. with the intention of reversing a 1-0 loss to the Philadelphia Union in its opening match last week.
“It really is awesome to be part of this league for 10 years,” Davis said. “Its exciting to see where it has come from and how much it has grown since I’ve been in the league.”
For starters, the MLS now is picking its cities wisely, making sure strong fan support exists, he said. In the past, it seemed more hit and miss. The quality of play has really ratcheted up, too. Players are stronger, faster and more technical. “The development of the players has gotten much better,” Davis said. “When I was younger, I didnt have anything to aspire other than going to Europe. Now, the younger kids have the ability to aspire and dream about playing in this league. Its definitely moving in the right direction.”
Back in the day, Davis recalled, MLS teams often practiced at high schools or community colleges. There were no team training facilities. There was no focus on fitness, eating healthy and taking care of your body. And, of course, crowds were sparse.
“We didnt have the gyms back then,” Davis said. “We were practicing at the community college and squeezed into small locker rooms. Back then, I’d grab a quick bite to eat after practice — usually junk food–and not even think about it. I was just going to play soccer because I loved it.”
Now, Davis, 29, wakes up at certain time, eats a specific healthly breakfast, usually trains before practice, then eats a healthy lunch after practice, works out in the gym and then recovers at home.
Maturity, he says, and the reality that the players are getter better every year prompted him to make some lifestyle changes.
“I wasnt recovering and my body was breaking down and I was getting injured,” he said. “I had to change the way I ate and trained to stay healthy. I lost some weight and now Ive never felt better in the last two or three years than I did in my whole career.”
The changes have made a difference on the field. Davis has been one of the Dynamo’s key players. But he has ramped it up in the last few years. He led the Dynamo and finished third in MLS with 12 assists in 2010, in a year where the Dynamo did not make the playoffs. He added five goals and was named team MVP for the second straight year. That followed a nearly identical 2009 All-Star season, where he recorded 12 assists. In the last five years, Davis has produced three double-digit assist seasons.
He pulls the strings with his silky left foot and is considered one of the leagues best free-kick takers. Davis considers himself a creator more than a scorer — though he’ll take the goals, too. “I want to get on the ball as much as I possibly can,” Davis said. “For me, I still want to get the ball and try to create things. When I get on the ball, I try to bring people into play and create something with it.”
One of the beneficiaries of Davis’ pinpoint passing has been Brian Ching, a former USL-1 Sounders and Gonzaga University star. Ching is expected to play against the Sounders tonight.
Davis will find Ching to hold up the ball, drop it over the top to rookie forward Will Bruin — the Dynamos first draft choice– or ping it diagonally to new forward Jason Garey, who joined from Columbus in part of a big player shuffle during the offseason.
“Hes got a great delivery with his left foot on dead balls and from the run of play,” said Cam Weaver, another one of Houston’s big target forwards. The Federal Way native played for Seattle University and Skagit Community College. “Brad is pretty accurate where hes putting the ball. For us, if we get a free kick or corner kick, we know the ball is going to come in a dangerous position. He keeps possession real well. Technically, hes very good.”
Seattle Sounders coach Sigi Schmid said Davis is still a key player for them. They really try to make use of their set pieces and their corners and with their size and with his (Davis) accuracy of service, they are very dangerous, Schmid said.
Davis, the veteran, is no stranger to change. Houston underwent a makeover, turning over 40 percent of its roster, following a poor 2010 season. New and exciting young players such as Generation Adidas Bruin and Kofie Sarkodie joined from the MLS SuperDraft. Garey arrived from Columbus. As recently as this week, Houston traded forward Dominic Oduro for another forward — Calen Carr of Chicago.
The player overhaul is part of being a professional athlete, Davis said, speaking from experience. “We have to accept that and do our best with the new guys,” Davis said. ” I dont think the turnover was a bad thing. Sometimes thats what the team needs.
“Were moving forward and we want to get back in the playoffs and be a championship team,” he said. “That was a big disappointment not making the playoffs. Were anxious to turn it around.”