When Charlie Davies was trying to make the difficult decision about where to continue his career, he sought the advice of a man who has supported him from the very beginning: Bob Bradley.
And the US national team head coach did not mince words as to what he’d rather see his former protégé do.
"He told me, 'Charlie, the bottom line is, you need to play,'" Davies told ExtraTime Radio in February. "'Would I say to play 20 minutes every game at your club now or 90 minutes in MLS, what would be better for you? That’s an obvious answer – the 90 minutes every game.'"
Davies’ list of goals has been grueling and odds-defying: put behind him a horrible car accident that left mental wounds as deep as the physical ones, get back to playing soccer again and, eventually, perhaps get back to the national team. Bradley’s advice resonated with Davies big-time.
"After he told me that, it was a no-brainer," Davies said of his decision to join D.C. United. "My decision was made right when coach Bradley told me that."
Davies’ situation is special, of course. The fact that he’s playing again is a miracle in itself. But Davies isn’t just playing – he’s slowly becoming himself again. The speedy striker leads MLS in scoring and has worked his way into Ben Olsen’s starting lineup with DC.
If Davies keeps progressing this way and slowly regaining the confidence and swagger he had before that horrible accident two years ago, I’d be hard-pressed to find a reason why he shouldn’t be given a shot on this summer’s Gold Cup squad. And I’d bet my bottom dollar Bradley feels the same way.
Again, Davies’ circumstances are special. But quietly, this has set a precedent of which all US national teamers who are itching to get back into the mix should pay special attention: It’s not where you’re playing, it’s the fact that you’re playing.
And if Bradley has shown us anything over the years, it’s this: You will get called on if you are playing well in MLS. If you’re languishing on a bench in somewhere in Europe, you likely will not.
Heath Pearce understands this. Hunter Freeman understands this. And, most famously, Kenny Cooper understands this.
Cooper was tired of bad breaks and fighting back from injury at 1860 Munich and Plymouth Argyle. Now he’s on the way to becoming his old self in Portland. If he continues to improve, I would be very surprised if he doesn’t work his way back into the mix by the fall.
This is a new message to departed MLS alums and Americans who went directly to Europe: Major League Soccer is no longer the step back that many once thought it was, and a European league not the Shangri-La everyone thinks it is. Competitively, you are doing yourself just as much good – and in many cases, better – by coming home or remaining here in the first place.
Jay DeMerit understands this, and it’s why – health allowing – he’ll likely play in the Gold Cup while waving the banner for a Canadian MLS team. Benny Feilhaber gets this, too, and it’s why he opted to come home rather than return to the Danish top flight with the club he helped get back there.
This is why the scads of Americans abroad who are wasting away on benches, sitting on the sidelines while someone has taken their place as they battle back from injury, or bouncing from league to league in search of answers really have only one surefire option if they want Bradley’s attention: Come home.
Eddie Johnson hasn’t found a regular place with any of four clubs since he left Kansas City four years ago. Chris Rolfe’s hamstring issues have pushed him further away from making his mark with Aalborg. José Francisco Torres is no longer a fulltime starter at Pachuca, and his game is dying for a little of the physical schooling MLS could provide.
Freddy Adu is off playing in the Turkish second division, for heaven’s sake – raise your hand if you don’t think that’s a humbling experience.
Bradley may be a hyper-prepared watcher of as many games around the world as possible, but it goes without saying that it’s easier for him to keep track of a player in, say, Thursday’s DC-New York match than in next weekend’s Çaykur Rizespor-Adanaspor battle. Furthermore, Bradley is also a proven supporter of quality in MLS.
"By playing in MLS, you are sure to be seen week in and week out,” one US national-teamer who plays abroad admitted to MLSsoccer.com. “And that's a huge advantage."
It’s time for some of our boys abroad to put aside their dreams of giant paychecks and EPL glory and realize what Davies, Cooper and some others have figured out: MLS is your ticket back into that Red, White and Blue shirt.
Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com. “The Throw-In” appears every Thursday.