The United States remains a second-class citizen in the soccer-playing world, and no one feels the frustrations of this status more than Rick Davis, who has been the cynosure of American soccer in recent years. Davis is far from a household name in this country, but that might have changed if he could have headed one tantalizingly close crossing pass into the net last year.
The goal that got away, that would have given the US a berth in the upcoming World Cup matches and possibly heightened spectator interest nationwide, is still fixed in memory. ``I can even describe the rotation of the ball,'' he says after a practice with the St. Louis Steamers, the indoor team he now plays for.
If Davis had deflected the ball in for a goal, the US would have tied its game with Costa Rica with only three or four minutes left, virtually clinching a trip to this year's 24-team World Cup tournament in Mexico.
Instead, Costa Rica held on to win, and the Americans were once again left out of the globe's biggest soccer party, which is held every fourth year.
``I almost feel this nation as a whole has been defeated in its quest for recognition as an outdoor soccer nation,'' says the well-spoken St. Louis midfielder. ``I don't want to accept that, and I don't know if I ever will.''
The sting of this defeat weighed heavily on Davis. Though a very mature young man with a generally positive outlook, he was jolted by seeing his lifetime dream of playing in the World Cup shattered.
``I almost became a recluse for two or three weeks after our elimination,'' he says while sitting in the lobby of the Soccerhaus, a suburban indoor soccer facility.
Amid the beeps of video games being played by his Steamer teammates, he admitted, ``There really wasn't anything I wanted to hear; there wasn't anything anyone could tell me to ease the pain, to ease the frustration of that pie in the sky being eliminated from within reach.''
Now that he has peace of mind again, Davis is already contemplating making another attempt to play in the World Cup four years hence. Given the many talented players he sees coming up in the sport, he's not even sure he will be able to make the US team, but he wants to try.
To do so means planning, since the Major Indoor Soccer League season could conflict with World Cup qualifying games and Davis's own timetable of outdoor preparation. One possible scenario would find him playing two more years indoors, then devoting the next year to getting ready for an outdoor qualifying effort, a project complicated in the US by the decline and fall of the North American Soccer League.
Since he becomes a free agent at the end of the current MISL season, he will have some latitude in making such future plans. Increasingly he expects to examine his post-soccer career options, too. He once wanted to become a doctor like his father, but figures that is an unrealistic goal for a 27-year-old with a wife, three children, and no degree. He's taken a number of college courses since dropping out of the University of Santa Clara in 1977 to play with the NASL's New York Cosmos, but none in a concentrated field.
So soccer and after-soccer plans must all be factored together. In the first area, though, Davis realizes he must give himself adequate time to retune his outdoor skills if he's serious about participating in the American World Cup effort.
``Last time they simply weren't polished,'' he states frankly. ``When I went into the qualifying games I had just come from playing indoors for eight months. I should have invested more time in bettering myself for the outdoor game. I wasn't the player I'd been before and I don't blame that on anybody but myself.''
Davis, who once turned down 13 college football scholarships to play soccer at Santa Clara, enjoys indoor and outdoor soccer, but acknowledges the two are in some ways very dissimilar. The indoor game, as played on artificial turf in hockey arenas, is all short bursts, pinball caroms, and rapid-fire shots on goal. Players are substituted on the fly. Outdoors requires more general fitness, where as Davis describes it, ``you kind of motor around off and on between sprints, jogs, and walks for 90 minutes.'' The MISL also requires an adjustment to the frequency of games -- 48 in the regular season compared with the 24 or 30 he once played outdoors.
MISL soccer is also wrapped in show biz trappings, a fact that alienates many purists. While a product of the unadorned outdoor game, Davis has no qualms about all the gimmicks -- the laser-light shows, loud music, and theatrical player introductions. He considers these things the price of success in the intensely competitive US sports market.
Davis has served as soccer's most visible ``American hope'' in recent years, partly due to the opportunity he had to prove he could play with so many established international stars on the Cosmos, and with the New York press there to watch. He probably could be playing overseas now instead of in the relative obscurity of the MISL, but the 1984 US Olympic captain feels that would only confuse his place as an American soccer yardstick.
``I think people would forever be making measurements about how much soccer I learned there as compared to here,'' he says. ``There's no two ways about it, Rick Davis has learned all his soccer in this country and is a product of the American system, which is the way I want to be remembered.''