On an early morning in March, Matt Besler summoned his teammates to the Sporting Kansas City weight room. He carried two soccer balls, representing mementos for players who had scored their first goals with the club.
The first one he announced, center back Nuno Coelho, elicited applause from the room. The second one, Brad Davis, drew an entirely different reaction.
“They thought that was funny,” Davis says. “I guess they won’t let me forget.”
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Forgive, perhaps. But forget? Not yet.
Davis arrived in Kansas City via trade this offseason after spending the past 10 years with the club’s biggest playoff adversary, the Houston Dynamo. On Saturday, he will return to Houston for the first time since the trade, this time wearing a Sporting KC uniform.
For the latter part of his decade-long tenure in the Lone Star state, he was the face of a Houston franchise the Sporting KC fan base grew to loathe.
He scored in big moments. He assisted on impact goals. And he ensured everyone knew it.
In one trip to Children’s Mercy Park, he may or may not have flipped off members of the Cauldron. (He says he didn’t.)
On the field, the tension reached its apex last summer, when the Dynamo visited Kansas City for a U.S. Open Cup match. As the teams lined up for a free kick, Sporting KC midfielder Roger Espinoza took a swing at Davis, resulting in a two-game suspension.
“I’m sure I’ve (ticked) people off along the way,” Davis says. “I don’t give a (rip).
“You can’t always be great and nice in our business.”
A notoriously competitive edge accompanies Davis to the practice field, and he wasted little time showing that part of his personality in Kansas City. He’s loud and can even be obnoxious, but he’s unapologetic about that.
During a training session this week, he sprinted down the left sideline after a loose ball, slid to save it from trickling out of bounds and sent an enticing pass in front of the goal. He shouted an obscenity upon discovering none of his teammates were able to get on the receiving end of it. A teammate muttered one back.
“I demand a lot of myself. I also demand a lot out of my teammates,” Davis says. “If you’re not doing your job, I’m going to let you know it.
“But if I’m out here at training and I yell at someone or some guy yells at me, who cares? That means they want to win. I want that.”
He provides evidence. After two months, he says Espinoza is one of his favorite teammates, despite their history. “He’s a fighter,” Davis says, and he smirks upon realizing the irony of his word choice.
But again, his new teammates won’t let him forget the past. In Davis’ first week in Kansas City, striker Dom Dwyer demanded Espinoza and Davis take a picture together, reenacting the brush-up as they posed.
Dwyer has since told Davis he plans to call him “Houston” for at least six months, and when Sporting KC players talk about the Dynamo, they look at Davis and refer to them as “you guys.”
If it appears these circumstances might have required some smoothing over after Davis traded sides of the rivalry, well, that isn’t exactly his style.
“He’s not here to win a popularity contest,” Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes says. “Sports are not about the guys in the locker room being best friends. Not everybody in that room needs to hang out together.”
Davis, 34, grew up in St. Louis, but he spent several weekends in Kansas City, watching his brother, Jeff, who played for the Kansas City Attack indoor soccer team.
“Kemper Arena,” Davis says, “was like the Taj Mahal to me.”
When he entered MLS in 2002, he planned to eventually return to the Midwest. After Sporting KC offered him that opportunity, the ensuing reaction from fans and teammates in Kansas City became insignificant. In fact, the only part of the trade that concerned Davis was uprooting his three young kids. (His daughter thought they would need to literally move the house.)
“I wasn’t worried about fitting in at all,” he says. “The only thing I care about is winning and helping my team win. And this was a team full of winners.”
And vice versa.
“From my perspective, you can bring in a player from our most heated rival, and if he’s going to help us, we’re going to find a spot for him,” midfielder Benny Feilhaber says.
He’s done that. Davis has scored twice — one a game-winner inside his new home venue — in eight appearances.
The club acquired him, however, for his potential to create goals more than score them. His 122 career MLS assists rank third all-time, and that’s a product of his ability to bend a dangerous ball into the box with precision. Vermes ranks Davis among the top five historically in taking set pieces.
At 34 years old, Davis insists he still has it. He has built a diet around sticking in the league for as long as possible. In the club’s most recent match, a draw against the LA Galaxy last weekend, Davis logged more ground coverage than any of his teammates.
“To be honest, I think I’m surprising a lot of people,” he says.
Davis’ debut with Sporting KC took place on March 20 inside Children’s Mercy Park, where fans had spent the past decade harassing him. They gave him standing ovation.
Vermes alerted Davis during halftime that he would be entering the match to open the second half. Before the half started, he ducked under the tunnel to use the restroom.
“I ran right by our locker room and headed to the visitor’s locker room,” Davis said. “A security guy looked at me like, ‘What are you doing?’ ”
In other words, it might feel especially strange Saturday night, when Davis travels to Houston as a visiting player. He expects an emotional reaction when he steps onto the field and sees a group of former teammates warming up on the opposite side. He's eager to greet his former fan base.
But after the first whistle, it's just another game. And his on-the-field approach has always been simple to describe.
"I'm going to do whatever I can to win, no matter who we're playing," he says. “That’s me. That’s who I am.
“And if that rubs someone the wrong way, what do I care?”