A goal worth fighting for
This article appeared in the July 10, 2010 issue of the Houston Dynamo Gameday Magazine.
Brad Davis has scored plenty of big goals in his professional career. From his first MLS game in 2002 to the United States national team's Gold Cup championship shootout in 2005 to the Dynamo's inaugural playoff run in 2006 to his memorable hat trick against Chivas USA in 2007, he's had some big ones. But perhaps no celebrations meant as much as those following two of his five goals last year: a free kick against Toronto on May 30 and a late game-winner against Real Salt Lake on September 19.
The goals were classic Davis - shots rifled with his left foot, both from well outside the penalty area - but the celebrations were even more emblematic of his personal identity: military salutes to the crowd. You see, Brad Davis comes from a military family, and Military Appreciation Nights at Dynamo games, like tonight, mean just a little bit more.
Davis's commitment to the military is not a recent development; the 28-year-old has been bringing military families to Dynamo games since arriving in Houston with the club prior to the 2006 season. He has gone up in a Navy jet and visited with veterans at a VA hospital. But last year, Davis collaborated with the Dynamo to turn his program - Brad's Brigade - into a full-scale effort, inviting fans to donate tickets for military families, and the results far exceeded anybody's expectations.
"Last year it was a big hit," Davis said. "We didn't realize how many people were actually going to do it. It went way beyond what we thought we were going to get, and hopefully we can continue to make it much bigger. It's just something we all can do to show our support."
Ask Davis why the military means so much to him, and the answer is simple: family. His grandfather, father, uncle, cousin, and best friend have all served in the armed forces and are just part of his personal connection to military service.
"I'm from a military family, and I'd hear stories of everything they have to go through, day in and day out over there, and it's not pretty," Davis said. "People tend to forget about that in the back of their minds. This is something that's very small and very easy to do, and you don't understand how far it goes. I can't tell you how many thank-yous I've gotten for doing it. It's something special for us to do to give back."
Davis, who missed his first league game of the season on July 1 with a hip flexor injury, hopes to return to the field for Saturday's game and hopes to see his best friend return from Iraq in time to watch the match. It might be a bit much to ask Davis to score on a third consecutive Military Appreciation Night, but his teammates know it would just be icing on the cake.
"It's something he feels compelled to do," said defender Eddie Robinson of Davis's efforts. "It's not something he does because it makes him look better. He does it because he respects those people and respects what they do for us. I think sometimes he's a little bit envious of them, and he would [serve] in a second if he were asked. Those people are certainly special to this country and a lot of guys on this team. Seeing the time and energy Brad puts into honoring those people is special for us as well."
While ramping up his efforts off the field over the last couple of years, Davis has also stepped up his game on the field. He set career highs in starts, minutes, and assists last year, tying for the MLS lead with 12 assists and scoring five goals of his own in league play, his most since 2003. A renewed commitment to health and fitness have been among the decisive factors for Davis, but Robinson - a teammate since Davis came to San Jose in 2005 - has seen even longer-term growth in his friend's game.
"I think his attitude has changed," Robinson said. "He came from situations where there was a lot of individual self-preservation on teams that he played on. He came to this team, and he saw the attitude of the guys and the atmosphere of the locker room, and you saw his whole attitude change. That has really helped him not only improve his personal side, but his abilities. In the last few years, there's maybe not a better midfielder in MLS."
Davis has certainly thrived in the team-first environment created by head coach Dominic Kinnear and his entire coaching staff over the last six years. The St. Louis-area native earned several recalls to the United States national team early in 2010 and is in contention for a spot in the 2010 MLS All-Star Game, to be played in Houston later this summer.
After establishing himself with the Dynamo as a left-sided player - his pinpoint accuracy from the run of play and on free kicks has been a hallmark of Houston's offense - Davis has been forced to step into the middle following Geoff Cameron's injury earlier this season. He scored a spectacular goal on May 8 in a 2-0 win against Chivas USA but has not scored since as the Dynamo have dipped below .500.
"I still feel like my best position with this team is out wide," Davis said. "One of the things I've had to adapt to is getting involved and linking up with the forwards a lot better. I've done that to a certain degree. ... I feel like I'm smart on the ball and make the right passes, but I do feel like I need to get involved in the attack a little bit more."
Even with his improved fitness, fatigue may have played a factor in a slight dip in statistical production. Davis led the Dynamo in minutes before picking up his hip flexor injury, and the additional responsibilities of being a two-way player in the center of the field have slowed him slightly.
"I don't know if people realize that, but it's really hard to go back and forth, defend and attack, and you've got to be super fit," Davis said. "I've done a better job of staying fit, but there are still little things I need to get better on if I stay in there."
Despite the fatigue, Davis ranks fourth in the league with six assists and has continued to play a key role in an offense ranked third in MLS with 21 goals scored and fourth in the league in goals per game. The most recent example came on the game-tying goal against Colorado on June 26. Although he did not get an assist, Davis made a key pass out of midfield that found Brian Mullan and set up Joseph Ngwenya's top-corner finish.
"You have to have somebody who serves a good ball, and Brad certainly does that, but it's also his vision during the run of play and his speed of thought that our forwards really thrive off of as well," Robinson said. "As a goalscorer, you want to create opportunities, but the easier those opportunities are, the more goals you're going to score. I think Brad creates easy opportunities for our forwards."
Whether setting goals up or scoring them, expect Davis to look for Brad's Brigade if the Dynamo get on the scoresheet tonight. Win or lose, count on him staying late into the night with military families after the game. Honoring the armed forces is ingrained in him, and that goal is the biggest one of all.