Saturday, September 27, 2008
Davies learns to be a true professional in Sweden
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger would cringe if one of his blossoming prospects gorged on fast food. What, then, would he have made of New Hampshire native Charlie Davies, who says he'd love to play under the respected Frenchman down the road?
Charlie Davies has rebounded from a poor first season in Sweden. (Icon SMI)
A proper diet wasn't one of the former Boston College standout's strengths in a trying first season in 2007 at one of Sweden's biggest clubs, Stockholm-based Hammarby, and that failing had something to do with the 22-year-old's getting benched.
Davies, who has three senior caps to his name and was part of the U.S. Olympic team in China, changed his approach and is now one of the Allsvenskan's most-feared strikers.
"It's been a great season, especially compared to last, which was such a learning experience for me," Davies said. "I thought I was going to jump in and do what I was doing this year. I've really established myself on and off the field with my teammates and think I've done a good job of being a professional."
Davies could be forgiven for heading to Europe overconfident.
He rewrote the record books in high school and was a finalist for the 2006 Hermann Award, soccer's equivalent of the Heisman Trophy.
According to reports, MLS officials were ready to offer Davies a hefty salary, bonuses and a sponsorship deal, hoping to keep the speedster in North America.
His early days in Europe were an extension of his time at Boston College, when Davies sometimes would eat pizza five minutes before training, drawing the ire of coach Ed Kelly. Some days, he'd put in 100 percent in practice but ease up in the next session as a consequence.
Unlike in his college days, though, Davies wasn't producing. Hammarby coach Tony Gustavsson left him out of the squad in one game late last season and gave him an ultimatum: Step it up or go home. "I think he just felt I wasn't there, focused enough, and mentally tough in training," Davies said. "When you come in from college and you're a superstar, you kind of do what you want. I thought, 'I did so well in preseason that I'm just going to jump in and be a star.' As each game came and I didn't score, I kind of went into a little depression."
Davies took the "step it up" option. He scored a hat trick, his first three goals of the entire campaign, in Hammarby's last fixture, against GAIS.
He insists he doesn't shirk in training anymore, and when one game is over, he already is thinking about the next, getting in ample rest. Instead of munching burgers and fries from takeout joints, he cooks, eating plenty of pasta. He never used to eat breakfast, but that changed, too.
Respect is now there from his teammates, many of whom he'll enjoy a coffee or two with in the picturesque Swedish capital. Davies adores Stockholm and lives beside Hammarby's stadium with his girlfriend Nina, a Boston College graduate.
"To be a professional soccer player is not just to perform on the pitch or to score a few goals," said Hammarby general manager Lars Eriksson, a former Swedish international goalkeeper. "To do well, you need to eat well, sleep well, take care of your body 24 hours a day. It's like 24 hours of work in a day, every day, week, month. That's something he didn't have when he came here. He's not there yet 100 percent, but he's improved a great deal from last year."
The goals have followed.
Despite missing a few matches because of the Olympics, where he made one appearance as a sub, Davies is tied for third in league scoring with 10 goals in 20 games. While unsung Kalmar seeks a maiden league title, Hammarby lies a distant fifth with about a month-and-a-half remaining in the season.
Davies isn't sure how long he'll stay at Hammarby, though he acknowledges he needs to develop his game further. Unsurprisingly, he'd like to end up in England or Spain, and Arsenal, perhaps Europe's most aesthetically pleasing side, "has always been a dream" of his. (Hammarby has some Arsenal links; current Swedish international keeper Rami Shaaban spent three relatively unsuccessful years in north London.)Eriksson has no doubts Davies has the "quality" to play in the English Premier League or Italy's Serie A, although he adds that Davies possibly needs a move to the top division in the Netherlands or Belgium -- both a notch above the Allsvenskan -- to bridge the gap."I think he has one extraordinary quality, and that's the speed," Eriksson said.
If Davies does make it to Arsenal, at least Wenger, noted for enforcing a strict dietary policy, won't need to worry about what Davies is eating.
Ravi Ubha is a London-based freelance journalist covering Americans abroad for ESPNsoccernet. He also covers tennis for ESPN.com.