Can anybody tell me what's happened to Philippe Davies?
He's not injured. He's not in prison. Last week he played all ninety minutes of a reserve match against the San Jose Earthquakes. Last year, Davies played 1,417 minutes for the Division Two Whitecaps despite being a tender, inexperienced teenager who wasn't able to force his way into the first team until the May 29 match in Rochester. He was one of Vancouver's earliest MLS signings and our first home-grown player. Not so long ago, I was talking about him as a guy who might fight for a starting spot in 2011.
And it's not like the team hasn't needed him. Davies is a versatile sort: a natural playmaker who was born to play an attacking central midfield role but spent almost all of last year on right wing and did fine. You've probably noticed that the team isn't exactly loaded with midfielders at the moment: Russell Teibert is on international duty, Davide Chiumiento, Shea Salinas, Michael Nanchoff, and John Thorrington are all hurt... I mean, there's room for Davies in that mix. Last Saturday against the Philadelphia Union Nizar Khalfan started at right wing despite the fact that Davies spent all of 2010 eating Khalfan's lunch. Davies couldn't even make the bench, where preference was given to the likes Wes Knight (a right back) and Long Tan (the fourth-best striker on FC Tampa Bay last year).
This weekend's game against Sporting Kansas City is fast approaching. Teibert will be with the Canadian U-20 team until Friday evening at the earliest and hopefully much longer; either way, he's not likely to be in much shape to start an MLS game on Saturday. Thorrington's at least practicing but is clearly not back yet, Chiumiento's hamstring injury is lingering, Salinas apparently angered the soccer gods, and I'm beginning to think this "Michael Nanchoff" character doesn't really exist and is just a charade being put up by an overwhelmed Whitecap front office. Surely this is Philippe Davies's time: he's young, he provides offensive spark that this team died for in Philadelphia, and he proved last year that he can play professionally. But so far, no word.
Is no one else wondering what's happened to Davies? Did he run over Teitur Thordarson's cat or something? Did he bring a vuvuzela to practice? What's going on here?
As one of the few remaining members of the Philippe Davies Fan Club (and, for all I know, the Philippe Davies Still Exists Club), maybe I should say why I think a 20-year-old midfielder with a grand total of 29 regular season games in professional experience (one goal) is so bloody important.
Philippe Davies has weaknesses on a soccer field. He's inexperienced, obviously, and that shows in his decision making sometimes. He's far from the fastest players on two legs, which has burned him in the past playing on the wing, and he hasn't got bags of skill. After Russell Teibert and Davide Chiumiento, I can see why Davies might come as a disappointment. He isn't going to electrify you by knocking the ball through somebody's legs or lugging it across the width of the pitch before dropping a picture-perfect cross to some disbelieving schlub of a forward. He, to put it harshly, simply isn't that talented.
But I'll tell you what Davies does have and why I'm such a big fan of his. Davies has a playmaker's instinct. He strikes the ball very well both in open play and off set pieces. His accuracy sometimes isn't the greatest, and I'll be the first to admit he missed his share of crosses or blasted the ball wide a few times too many last season, but you could see it improve as the year wore on. He plays a sensible, conservative style that emphasizes intelligence over brash risk-taking, and if he does make a mistake he'll try to get back and play some defense. He's not a transcendent player, but as a 19-year-old last season he was one of the five best wide midfielders in the USSF D2. And that was while playing out of position.
At one time, Teitur Thordarson had plenty of confidence in young Davies. Davies's strong play helped drive Vancouver favourite and veteran Ansu Toure out of town. It ruined the possibility that former USL-1 MVP Ricardo Sanchez would ever stick in Vancouver (he wound up killing it for Tampa Bay instead). He was never perfect, and he received some criticism for his lapses on the wing, but most Whitecaps fans from last year would agree with me: he was a solid player in a difficult situation, he improved as the year went on, and frankly for a player of his age and experience his play was exemplary. You did see the occasional "DAVIES 15" jersey in the stands of Swangard last year. He was an awfully easy player to cheer for.
Now, Davies is in virtual exile. Is he too slow for Major League Soccer, perhaps? Not quite as ready as Thordarson and Soehn hoped he might be when he signed that contract? Are they still trying to catch lightning in a bottle with the likes of Khalfan and Tan before going back to Davies? At 20 years old and with a homegrown player contract, Philippe still has plenty of time to catch on. He's a Canadian who joined the Whitecaps Residency in 2008. Roster-wise, he's almost a perfect storm: he's a domestic, he's promising, and he doesn't count against the salary cap. If the Whitecaps are giving him heavy time with the Reserves and keeping him training with the first team, they obviously see something in him.
I just wish the fans at Empire Field could get to see something too, and a little more quickly.