By THOMAS FLOYD
CARSON, Calif. — Standing on the sidelines, there was nothing Brad Davis could do. As empowering as the Houston Dynamo midfielder is on the pitch, the quad injury that reduced him to sporting crutches and a warm-up jacket enveloped him with a sense of helplessness.
A year ago, fresh off being named the runner-up for league MVP, Davis watched as the Dynamo fell 1-0 in the MLS Cup final to the Los Angeles Galaxy. He started 37 of Houston’s 38 MLS matches in 2011 — but the one he missed couldn’t have come at a worse time.
Fast-forward 12 months. The stage for MLS Cup, once again, is set at a rain-soaked Home Depot Center. The underdog Dynamo for the second straight year are facing a star-studded Galaxy side.
Now, Davis is healthy, fit and in-form, making the challenge ahead all the more tenable for a fifth-seeded Houston team used to overcoming obstacles.
“I’m just happy to be healthy and sitting where I am,” Davis said during a press conference Friday. “Now we’re sitting here with another shot. I know I didn’t get to play last year, but that was last year. We’re a different group of guys this year.”
After leading MLS with 16 assists last season, the 31-year-old turned in quite the encore this year, compiling 12 helpers and a career-high eight goals while finishing fourth in the MVP voting. He has carried that sharpness into the postseason, notching three assists in Houston’s five-game run.
“He’s a great player, and I was sad to see him” out last year, Galaxy midfielder David Beckham said. “I hope he doesn’t play well, to be honest, but I know that he’s a very good player, he’s got a great left foot, he can deliver balls anywhere he wants to, and he’s a player that you try to do homework on.”
Davis, of course, is most lethal on his patented set-piece services. Swinging in service from the corner flag or hitting free kicks, Davis has a knack for finding his player amid the crowd.
It’s efficiency that has become ingrained in the Dynamo’s identity, with the club learning how to absorb pressure before capitalizing against the run of play with one swing of Davis’ left foot.
“We have Brad. It’s a great weapon to have — why not use it? If we were to have someone else stand over the ball, it’s a complete waste of time,” Houston coach Dominic Kinnear said, as Davis grinned and nodded in approval, before restating, “Well it’s not a waste of time, but it’s not using your best weapons. … Brad has a reputation of being a good taker in dead-ball situations, and rightly so. He’s one of the best in the league.”
Davis, however, also is key to the Dynamo’s possession game. Whether he’s taking a central role in a 4-3-3 or, more recently, playing on the left flank in a 4-4-2, he provides a calm influence on the ball that Houston sorely missed in last year’s final.
Even when Houston is winning ugly, it’s a well-oiled machine — and Davis is perhaps the most crucial cog.
“He makes a lot of what we do go, from set pieces to the run of play,” defender Bobby Boswell said. “He keeps the ball for us, keeps it moving. He makes the right pass a lot of the time. So to have a guy like that who orchestrates your offense available, it’s huge for us. We were really hurting last year without him. I think it was also a big mental edge for L.A.”
Against a Galaxy team featuring the likes of Beckham, Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane, winning the possession battle Saturday will certainly be a challenge. With skill, pace and interchange of positions, Los Angeles can at times move the ball effortlessly.
But with Davis now in the midfield fold, along with midseason acquisitions Ricardo Clark and Oscar Boniek Garcia, the Dynamo seem better braced to hold their own against the defending champions.
“You look at his impact on our team over the years, the number of assists he provides, the leadership on the field, the calm, the poise on the ball — we missed that last year,” veteran Brian Ching said. “He’s excited to be back out there to make a difference. We’re a different team with him.”