In his dream, the one in which he can feel the sun and smell the grass, Ricky Davis takes The Shot from 18 yards out. He says it's always 18 yards, and that he always puts it in the upper lefthand corner. If the dream were to come true, The Shot would sail on forever, carrying from sea to shining sea and landing in history. "It's incredibly vivid," says Davis. He says the dream first came to him when he was eight: In it he scores the goal that gives the U.S. its first World Cup soccer championship, and the victory establishes the sport for all time in this country.
Davis, 26, a midfielder and the premier American-born player, is captain of the U.S. national team that has already won the first of three qualifying rounds leading to the 1986 World Cup in Mexico City. The next tests are in a round robin in May against Costa Rica and Trinidad-Tobago, followed by the last qualifying round in the fall. "Just to reach the final field of 24 would be the most significant thing ever to happen to soccer in this country," Davis says. He still dreams of The Shot.
Reality on a cold gray January morning in St. Louis is something else. Davis and his teammates on the St. Louis Steamers of the Major Indoor Soccer League dress for practice in a locker room that opens onto the public men's room of the St. Louis Soccerhaus, an antiseptic cinder-block building. There is neither sun nor grass. Through the walls of the locker room comes the steady, muffled clank of iron from Bodybuilders, Inc., a workout gym next door. A stale, boozy smell wafts down from Jimmy's Upstairs, a restaurant and lounge. But at the moment, this is where U.S. soccer happens to be. Fans have turned from the outdoor NASL—its 1985 season, with three living franchises, down from 24 in 1980, is in grave jeopardy—and are flocking to the MISL. The league is headed toward an attendance record for the second consecutive year; at present St. Louis is No. 2 on the list with an average of 12,829. Davis reportedly earns $100,000 a year from the Steamers, yet the indoor game that affords him so much fame and fortune may also be a barrier to the fulfillment of his dream.
Let's be serious. The possibility that the U.S. might win the World Cup in 1986 is too remote even to consider. But the U.S. could win a berth in the final 24-nation field. "Getting to Mexico would say to the world, 'Look out. Here comes U.S. soccer,' " says Davis.
That, of course, would be U.S. soccer's second coming. Davis is a product of the first. He was a three-sport athlete at Damien High in La Verne, Calif. in the mid-'70s when the incomparable Pelé came from Brazil to play for the New York Cosmos. "Pelé made soccer something to look up to," says Davis, who became so fascinated by the sport in high school that he gave up baseball. A football receiver and safety of some note, he turned down 13 college scholarship offers and decided to play soccer as a walk-on at Santa Clara University, where he was a premed major. Davis's other dream was to become a physician like his father, Richard Sr.
Al Mistri, Davis's high school soccer coach, recalls that as a senior Davis was so much more proficient than the other players that he would "start a game at midfield, move up to forward if we needed a goal, then drop back and finish the game as a defender to protect the lead he'd given us."
Davis was just as spectacular at Santa Clara, where he was All-Far West as a freshman in 1977. But a season that started in September and was over by December wasn't enough for a young man beginning to contemplate a future in the sport. "I had to play year-round against the best possible competition," Davis says. That meant turning pro.
The NASL was in its heyday then, and several teams sought Davis's services. "But the significance of Ricky Davis turning pro," says former NASL and MISL goalkeeper Shep Messing, a native of the Bronx, "is that he was the first American wanted for his ball skills. Before Davis, Americans were thought of as goalies and defenders."
While some teams tried to woo Davis—Tampa Bay,' for instance, flew his parents into town and showed them a college Ricky could attend—the Cosmos signed him in 1977 by laying on a heavy dose of noblesse oblige. Pelé was to retire that year, but the Cosmos still had Giorgio Chinaglia, Franz Beckenbauer and Carlos Alberto, the grand court of imported soccer princes. Davis couldn't refuse an invitation to join that company.
"I wanted to find out fast if I had what it took," he says. "If I could play with the Cosmos, I could play anywhere."