Charlie Davies celebrates scoring the first goal against Egypt at the FIFA Federations Cup in Rustenburg, South Africa, on June 21, 2009.
Michael Regan - FIFA—FIFA/Getty Images
June 27, 2014 3:44 PM EDT

By Ben Reiter

HINGHAM, Mass. – Of course he still thinks about the decision he made on that October night in Washington, D.C., four and a half years ago. How could he not? He was 23 years old then and a budding star, a striker who had already used his world-class speed to score and contribute to goals of a quality that seemed new for the U.S. national team.

There was the blitzkrieg two-man counterattack, in which he delivered a perfect cross to Landon Donovan for the finish, against Brazil in the 2009 Confederations Cup final. There was his strike against Mexico, in a World Cup qualifier at Estadio Azteca, two months later. The following summer, he was certain to start up front with his close friend, Jozy Altidore. The two seemed sure to form a formidable speed and power combination, and to repeatedly perform their celebratory Stanky Leg dance, not just in that World Cup in South Africa but in how many to come? Two? Three? More?

USA’s chaotic group stretch ends with win-feeling loss and knockout berth

“Sometimes I think about how I went into a 50-50 challenge against Ramires, of Chelsea, when we played Brazil,” Charlie Davies says. “And I’m beasting him, running by him, running by Lucio, running by these world-class players. And I’m thinking, what happened to me?”

He knows what happened, even if he doesn’t recall much of it. He got into a car after 3 a.m. with two women he didn’t know, and whom, he says, he didn’t know were drunk. He clicked in his seatbelt. The next thing he remembers, he was lying in a hospital bed believing that he was still in Honduras, where the U.S. had days before clinched their World Cup berth. He looked down at the 36 staples in his abdomen and thought that he had been kidnapped by organ harvesters. His first instinct was to use his speed to run away, before they got anything else, but he couldn’t run, not with a broken tibia and femur, a fractured elbow, a lacerated bladder, bleeding on the brain and a smashed-in face.

He should have died. The other passenger did, as the car was sheared in half when it struck a guardrail on the George Washington Parkway in the Washington, D.C., area. Somehow he survived, but his life was forever changed by a decision that, as poor as it was, likely would have turned out fine most of the time, except that time it didn’t. Perhaps Davies would by now be playing for his beloved Arsenal. Tottenham and Everton were already scouting him, before his accident. Perhaps he’d already have produced a reel full of World Cup highlights.

“I feel like 2010 would’ve really been my breakout, and that this World Cup would have been the one in which I would have really made a difference,” he says.

But Davies wasn’t on the field in Brazil for the national team as it faced Germany on Thursday, with an entry into the knockout stage in the offing, and he wasn’t on the bench either. Instead, he watched the game from his three-story townhouse in this Boston suburb – some 4,100 miles north of Recife – on a couch with his wife, Nina, an assistant fashion stylist; his younger brother, Justin, a soccer coach and administrator at Northeastern; and his dog, a Maltese named Nala. He wore an old national team jersey of his, a white one, and Nina wore a blue one. She hadn’t realized, when she had put it on, that it was his jersey from the Honduras game, which was the very last one in which he played for the United States.

Watching the U.S. play was painful for Davies in the summer of 2010. He emerged from the hospital with the goal of regaining his spot on the team, but his French club team, Sochaux, wouldn’t medically clear him for Bob Bradley’s camp, and he now admits that even then it would have been far beyond his still broken body anyway. Even so, he took in every game on TV, and when the team called him from its riotous locker room after a miraculous stoppage-time goal by Donovan against Algeria sent it through to the knockout rounds, he felt like he was still a part of it. Later, Donovan would tell him that had he been healthy and paired with Altidore, there was no way that they would have been knocked out by Ghana.

His doctors and therapists marveled at how quickly he reached a baseline level of recovery, with a damaged brain and a body so filled with metal – in his legs and in his face, the skin of which surgeons had to peel back so they could reconstruct its fine bones – that he frequently set off airport detectors (He was once pulled into a back room by the TSA in Miami and forced to strip). He had to relearn how to walk, how to dress himself, how to eat, how to talk. He did it fast, and he thought that regaining his soccer form would come next.

That proved a different sort of challenge. He returned to training with Sochaux in April of 2010, just six months after the accident, and he realized he wasn’t the same.

“What I had hoped for and expected, it was just kind of gone,” he says. He didn’t have the speed, he couldn’t hold off defenders. He would try to perform his favorite move – fake left, go right – but his body refused to do what his mind wanted it to. He’d spend possession drills hiding in a corner of the field, praying no one would pass him the ball, and he would hear his teammates asking each other, in French, why he was on the field with them at all.

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He fought his body for the next four years, as he bounced from Sochaux to D.C. United and back, and then to Randers, in the Danish league. He had his moments – he scored 11 goals for D.C. in 2011 – but things always ended badly. His form kept deserting him, along with his confidence. His body kept betraying him.

Last August, he was loaned back to Major League Soccer, to the New England Revolution. By February, with a new season about to begin, he felt certain that he was finally all the way back. His legs were as strong as ever, and his coach, Jay Heaps, said that he was the fastest player on the team. He started to dream that he might receive a call from Jurgen Klinsmann.

“I know I’ll succeed when I play, which is something I haven’t felt for a long time,” he said then. “If I start off with eight to 10 goals in the first quarter of the MLS season, why not think there’s a chance for me to get into the World Cup camp? It’s not like there’s an abundance of proven goal scorers on the national team.”

Then, though, he felt a twinge in his calf, a recurring strain that would put an end to that idea – and one that might be a lingering effect of the accident, which left his right leg an inch and a half shorter than his left, and tilted slightly outward. His MLS season with the Revolution has so far consisted of three substitute appearances totaling 91 minutes, although he did return to the field this week after a lengthy absence. It was 30 minutes against the USL Pro’s Rochester Rhinos in the U.S. Open Cup, however, a tournament some rungs down from the ongoing one in Brazil.

Although he finds himself imagining the runs he would make and the shots he would fire were he playing in this World Cup, he has found the experience of watching it to be easier than last time.

“At this point, I feel like more of a fan,” he says. “I’ve really enjoyed watching every single game. I’m so supportive of the U.S. team. I don’t have any resentment that I’m not there.”

As the U.S. prepared to play Germany on Thursday, with its Group of Death fate still in the balance, Davies had an idea as to how they would go about things, even as many members of the soccer cognoscenti theorized that Klinsmann and his old protégé, German coach Joachim Löw, would conspire for a gentleman’s draw. A tie would send both teams through; a defeat could mean that the loser might be knocked out, depending on what happened in the concurrent Ghana-Portugal match.

“You approach the game knowing obviously that a point, a draw, and you go through,” he said. “But if you play like that, sit back and let Germany come at you, eventually they’re going to score. So you want to play for the win. The key is not taking unnecessary risks. Do I take this ball and run down the line when there’s not many people with me, and put the team in a bad position? You don’t do that. This is a time you have to be secure and safe, always make the safe play.

“My prediction,” Davies continued, “is that we advance. Whether they draw, win, lose, I think it’s going to be enough.”

There was one German who concerned him more than any other. “Thomas Müller,” he said, of Die Mannschaft’s 24-year-old striker. “His movement is so dangerous. He’s the kind of guy, he gets a chance and he scores.”

The U.S. followed Davies’ script through the first half, playing it safe and weathering an early series of furious German attacks to keep the game scoreless. It was clear, though, that no détente had been reached between the coaches, and in the 55th minute the Germans broke through. It came, as Davies had predicted, on a thundering strike from Müller.

“Knew it,” Davies said. “That’s as good as it gets on a finish. We need to make a substitution – take out Brad Davis, our midfielder, probably, and put in somebody with more pace. I’m looking for Alejandro Bedoya.”

Four minutes later, Bedoya trotted onto the field, replacing Davis. By then, Ghana had leveled the score of its match with Portugal at 1-1, and the situation was fraught. One more unanswered goal by Ghana would doom the U.S. on goal differential.

That had Davies thinking of other another substitution to which Klinsmann might have turned, in an alternate reality. He’d thought about the same thing when the game was tight against Portugal.

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“Of course I think about it,” he said. “You’re just like, man, if I had the chance, I think I could do well. Last game, for instance, against Portugal, the game really opened up. Portugal was pushing for a goal, and Klinsmann brought on Chris Wondolowski and DeAndre Yedlin. They did fantastic, for what they were asked to do. But I just know that in that certain situation – and in this one against Germany too – I think I would have really taken off just because of what the game needed, which was a striker who could hold up the ball. Maybe with my speed I could create some go-ahead chances and maybe gotten the goal that would have put things out of reach.”

Davies also thought of another name Klinsmann might have called: that of Landon Donovan, whom he shockingly left off the roster.

“It’s sad, really,” Davies said. “Everyone knows what a career he’s had, but he could still make a difference, still impact the game. For him to not be one of the 23 guys, as a fan, as a friend of his, you want to see him take part in the World Cup. Absolutely, I think he could have helped here. He’s a perfect substitution.”

It wasn’t long, though, before the U.S. got the help it needed from an unlikely ally. Cristiano Ronaldo, whose last-minute cross on Sunday turned a certain U.S. win into a draw, put Portugal ahead 2-1 over Ghana in the 80th minute, all but clinching advancement for the Americans.

“I think his knee’s really bothering him, and that he’s in a lot of pain,” Davies said, of the slick-haired superstar. “I don’t feel like he’s got a lot of movement in these games. But he’s done whatever’s necessary – and he’s so talented that when it matters, he can still get it done, despite it all.”

Soon, the U.S. team was celebrating on the field in Recife. In Hingham, Davies and his wife and brother were politely clapping, as the dog jumped around, startled. It was time to focus on the future.

“I think we’ll beat Belgium,” Davies said, of the U.S.’s next opponent. “Who would we have after that?” On cue, the draw flashed on the television: Argentina, most likely. Davies inhaled. “Realistically, I’d say we get to the quarterfinals,” he said. “Hope we get further.”

It was also time to think about what might come next for him. He knows how easy it is to imagine what his career would have been like if he had not gotten into that car on that night in D.C. “Would mine and Jozy’s partnership have been talked about worldwide, for 10 years?” But he also knows, as well as anyone, how life has a way of upending expectations.

Altidore’s 2014 World Cup, after all, lasted 21 minutes, before he was felled by a badly strained hamstring in his team’s opening match against Ghana.

“We texted, and he was definitely down,” Davies said. “He felt like this was going to be the World Cup to launch him to that next level. I think everyone thought that was a strong possibility, due to the fact that he was coming into form at the right time, and that this formation really caters to him.”

Davies’s hope of partnering with Altidore on the world’s biggest stage is not over. He is already looking to 2018, in Russia.

“I’ll be 31,” he says. “That’s the goal. I’d be fine with just that.”

He also dreams of playing under Klinsmann.

“I think he’d be a fantastic coach for me,” he says. “One of the best strikers in the world, and a guy that I’d learn a lot from and is always giving you constant support.”

He knows that he has a long way to go – years of playing consistently well, at a high level. He is reminded of that every time he looks into the mirror and sees a body and a scalp cut with scars, and chipped teeth, and a face that is different from the one that he used to have, before it was rebuilt. He used to look like his brother; he doesn’t anymore. “I think he looks cuter than ever now,” says Nina.

Most of the time, Davies focuses not on what he doesn’t have, but on what he does. His wife, whom he met in Christian theology class during their freshman year at Boston College, and who stuck with him and supported him through it all. His family. His house. His dog. His career in professional soccer, which retains so much potential.

“There’s nothing I want that I don’t already have, and I’m not so sure what happened wasn’t for the best,” he says. “I’m a different person, a better person for it. I feel like I’ve aged 15 years through this experience. I’m much more emotional now. I never used to cry, and now I’ll just cry watching something sad.

“I’m alive still,” he continues. “I wake up happy every day. I’m happier than I’ve ever been, because I can appreciate everything that much more. I don’t take anything for granted, whether it’s the taste of food, being able to go to the movies.”

A life, really, is an endless series of decisions. Sometimes the decisions that seem big end up having little impact. Sometimes the ones that seem small change everything. You take one section of Christian theology over another, and you meet someone. You accept an offer of a ride back to a team hotel from a stranger, and you don’t make it.

Charlie Davies’ decision in the early morning hours of Oct. 13, 2009, sent his life careening off course, and it took U.S. Soccer and its fans with it. One day, perhaps in Russia, he might again play, and play well, for his country. He believes that it will happen. If it doesn’t? If the national team jersey that his wife wore on Thursday ultimately proves the last to ever bear his name? He will be fine with that, too.

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