Sean Davis does not shy away from the spotlight, but he is perfectly happy to work outside of it.
When it comes to the New York Red Bulls, Bradley Wright-Phillips, Daniel Royer, Tyler Adams, Luis Robles, Aaron Long, and Tim Parker are the names most pundits speak about. That group features a pair of goal scorers, a tremendously gifted teenager, an iron man, and a dynamic defensive duo. They all grab the spotlight.
Davis is rarely the topic of conversation.
Yet, Davis is having his best season as a professional soccer player. He ranks in the top five in minutes played, key passes, and interceptions. Davis’s eight assists are second best on the team, and he leads the team in passing accuracy. Those statistics paint a picture, but not one that is easily reckoned with the ever humble Davis.
Luck, timing, and hard work made Sean Davis the Red Bulls quiet leader
“I know my limitations,” Davis told RBNN. “I’m not the fastest. I’m not the quickest. I can run all day long, and I’d like to thank my mom for those genetics. She’s a big time runner. I knew that I was going to have to work on passing and becoming a quick thinker on the field in order to succeed. That was going to be my path. I was never going to be a winger with an abundance with pace. It was going to have to be using my brain to help me see things early and to help set up important plays down the field. That was an understanding I had early on.”
Davis fell into the central midfield role he now occupies as much as he chose it. He credits a coach from his childhood that pushed the players to try every position as a major factor to what led him to his calling. It also gave him a greater understanding of each role in a team, and how those pieces fit together.
“Being put in those situations helped me gain an understanding on what my strengths and weaknesses were.” said Davis. “I wanted to be in the middle of things and I wanted to be really involved. I think that’s why center midfield was so appealing.”
As he developed, his success eventually led him to the Red Bull Academy. Many Red Bull fans might remember Sean’s first on camera interview from his successful academy days.
It’s hard to believe the kid in that video has blossomed into the fearless midfield leader. Experiences like that in the academy pushed Davis towards the professional soccer player life, but it started much earlier for him.
“I always knew I wanted to be a professional soccer player,” said Davis. “And I was naive to the extent that, I always thought I had a chance. But at the same time I respected the fact that it was going to be difficult. I was coming up through a club that was very good, and I knew that it was probably my best chance. I needed to do everything possible to play well for the academy teams and the youth national teams to give myself my best shot.”
History had not been kind to many of Davis’s predecessors inside and outside of the Red Bull organization. Very few homegrown MLS players have been able to achieve prolonged success. Of the eight homegrown players signed before Davis, only one had found longevity with the club, Connor Lade. Davis saw the challenge as an uphill battle, but kept the faith that he might find a way. Davis mulled the thought of going pro straight out of high school, but he felt that he still needed time to grow physically and as a player. As such, he headed to Duke University on an athletic scholarship.
The decision to head to college ultimately changed the course of Davis’s professional life. While at school, a major organizational change made his path much clearer, even if he could not see it immediately. Mike Petke started courting Davis by including him in summer sessions and selling him on a role in the team. The Red Bulls fired Petke following the 2014 season. Petke’s departure and the team’s January MLS SuperDraft poured cold water on Davis’s dream. The Red Bulls grabbed Hermann Trophy winner Leo Stolz, a central midfielder from UCLA, in the first round.
Davis thought that meant he had missed his chance, but found the new man in charge willing to take a chance on young players.
“I remember being at Duke, and hearing in January that there was a new coach. I was caught by surprise. That summer, I had been working closely with Mike Petke and the first team. He gave me my first look, and he was bringing me into first team sessions constantly. From talking to Petke that year, it made me feel that this was the place I had to be. Next thing you know, Petke is gone and they draft a center mid. You could imagine what I was thinking. I knew it would be an uphill battle, but I went into preseason with an open mind. I was going to work as hard as I could to see where things would land.”
Jesse Marsch and Ali Curtis were adamant that young homegrown players were the future of the club. While some scoffed at the abrupt philosophical change, it proved to be a winning formula with the formation of the New York Red Bulls II. Having a league with meaningful matches to help develop players after their academy days were over, but before they were ready for MLS, was a god send to players like Davis.
Davis started getting chances that year, 2015, with both the Red Bulls and the New York Red Bulls II. He had 431 minutes played spread over 14 appearances his rookie season. Despite the Red Bulls extremely talented central midfield featuring Felipé, Dax McCarty, and Sacha Kljestan, Davis still found ways to sneak into the lineup. The coaching staff knew that the rapid development of Davis and Adams would force them to make difficult decisions over the next few seasons. Kljestan and fan favorite McCarty were performing well, and it made the prospect of a bigger role for Davis an improbability.
While Davis was wowing the coaching staff, Tyler Adams also showed signs that he was ready for a greater role in the squad. Jesse Marsch made a tough decision before the start of the 2017 season, trading away McCarty and opening up a spot in the midfield for his two young protégés. The first few months saw Davis struggle initially, but eventually he claimed a central midfield role, and has yet to let it go.
“I feel like one of the luckiest players in the league and even in the world with how things have shaken out,” said Davis. “I consider Jesse and Chris [Armas] to be the biggest influences in my career. I’m really fortunate with the timing of when I went pro and when Jesse joined the club. There was a huge culture shift. There was a genuine effort to bring minutes to homegrown players and young players. Maybe in the past they were focused on immediate results. They would bring in high caliber players from overseas. When Jesse came on board, that culture completely shifted in my favor. I’m really lucky to have the staff that I’ve had, and they’ve helped me out tremendously.”
“Of course I’ve had to work hard and earn that opportunity, but the foundation has been put in place by Jesse and the club. Sometimes I wonder how things would have worked out at any other MLS team. I’m not convinced that I would have nearly as big of a role as I do here. I think that’s what helps motivate me and drive me. I’m lucky to be here, and I want to make the most of it.”
Davis is now in his fourth year as a pro. His eight assists this season equal his output from his last three seasons combined. With each minute, each match, Davis continues to develop and evolve. He has played a supporting role for players like Wright-Phillips, Royer, and Kljestan, but he is invaluable to the Red Bulls thanks to his leadership qualities and work ethic. That work ethic led Davis up the all-time appearance chart for the Red Bulls. Davis sits at 23rd all-time with 116 matches played in all competitions.
Despite all of this, Davis is not the name that first comes to mind on the Red Bulls, but he finds validation from the team and staff.
“At the end of the day, the rest of the guys respect what I bring to the table. That’s the most I could ask for. While it might not be the most glamorous role, it suits me perfectly. I’m willing to do the dirty work to help the team win. I think people will recognize the work you do based on the record and how well the team does throughout the year. When people really look into it, they’ll understand the role of each player. I’m not worried about individual recognition, but rather the success of the team and the group. Every game is so important and every position is so important. If you get the details right, people will recognize it.”
Photos by Bill Twomey Photography