I’ve covered around two dozen US national team games in my career, including two World Cups and two Gold Cups. I’ve seen a lot of very good (Landon Donovan’s winner in Pretoria), a lot of very bad (the egg laid in Gelsenkirchen) and a lot of in between.
But if you ask me my favorite moment in all that time, it’s simple: Charlie Davies’ goal at Estadio Azteca four years ago.
It was as clinical as it was shocking. Just nine minutes into the match, Landon Donovan sent a knifing ball from midfield through traffic to Davies, who was streaking down the left side. Davies proceeded to turn on the jets and, in stride, calmly sent a curving chip over the left shoulder of Guillermo Ochoa.
That goal so stunned the green-clad, screaming horde at Azteca that we media members perched way up in the second deck could hear the American bench screaming in celebration. That’s how electrifying the goal was: It literally silenced more than 100,000 Mexico fans in attendance.
I think of this goal often. Not because it’s an awesome moment in the memory banks – and it is definitely that – but because it makes me a little sad. It reminds us all of what Davies once meant to the US national team and makes you think about what could have been.
That goal against Mexico was an awesome display of individual ability. Two months earlier at the Confederations Cup, Davies was also involved in what in my mind is perhaps the greatest team goal ever scored by the US: the give-and-go counterattack with Donovan that gave the Americans a stunning 2-0 lead on Brazil in the final.
Davies was an absolute game-changer in every sense of the term. During that breakout year with the national team, he appeared in 13 games, scored three goals, developed an innate strike partnership with Jozy Altidore and gave the US a rare blend of speed, savvy, technical ability and clinical finishing skills that simply cannot be taught.
He was, in many ways, the perfect blend of the skill set of every great American player ever all rolled up into a sturdy package. He turned 23 that summer, getting better with every game and providing glimpses that he could mature into an absolute force in soccer.
His star was only rising. After spending three seasons in Sweden with Hammarby, he made the jump to Sochaux of France’s Ligue 1 and began to assert himself as a starter and a contributor in one of Europe’s top leagues.
We all know what came next. A poor decision in the early morning hours outside Washington, D.C., changed Davies’ life forever. He nearly died in a car crash on the eve of the US’ Hexagonal finale and suffered injuries that put his career on hold for six months. He had to learn to walk all over again, much less kick a ball or score a goal in stride.
His comeback was remarkable, and his determination was as inspiring as it was unbelievable. But deep down, we all knew he would never be the same. The explosiveness was gone. The physical skills would never return to where they were post-accident. And just like that, a rising star was cut down. He’s still only 26, and back to football in Denmark with Randers FC. But that electrifying player we came to know four years ago is no more.
I thought about this a lot during the past few weeks leading up to Wednesday’s qualifier in Honduras. The US victory there four years ago – a 3-2 win that booked their ticket to South Africa – was the last time Davies took the field in a US jersey.
As the Americans slumped to defeat there on Wednesday, Cobi Jones spoke on the TV broadcast about the lack of a game-changer on the US roster, especially in the absence of Donovan. There was no one on the field, he said, who forced the issue and made the other team have to adjust to his skills.
It’s hard not to get a little nostalgic for Davies. There is no doubt in my mind that if his career hadn’t been derailed, he would have kept progressing. He would have been a major factor at the 2010 World Cup. Perhaps his speed and cunning would have helped the US grab a goal or two against Ghana in the Round of 16. Then who knows what could have happened from there.
Maybe he would have helped stretch the field a little more against Mexico in the 2011 Gold Cup final, and the eventual result would have been different. Then maybe Davies & Co. would have a chance to one-up their 2009 Confederations Cup finish this summer in Brazil and beyond.
Maybe by now, Davies would have become one of the greatest breakout success stories in the history of US Soccer. It sounds a little outlandish, but I believe he was on his way.
It’s a shame we never got to find out.
Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com. “The Throw-In” appears every Thursday.