Photo by Jose L. Argueta/ISIPhotos.com
By THOMAS FLOYD
WASHINGTON – After 17 months of anticipation, Charlie Davies' return to top-flight action was, in one way, anti-climactic.
Having not played a first-team minute since suffering life-threatening injuries in a horrific October 2009 car accident near Washington, Davies pulled off his warm-ups and prepared to enter D.C. United's MLS season opener against the Columbus Crew early in the second half Saturday.
But before too much of a buzz could build, United forward Josh Wolff slipped through the Columbus back line and tucked home a low shot to break the scoreless deadlock. Amid the frenzied celebration, Davies quietly snuck onto the field, replacing Joseph Ngwenya in the 52nd minute.
What he did on the pitch after that, however, more than made up for that understated entrance.
Davies came off the bench to score two goals for United, pacing his new side to a 3-1 win. In doing so, the 24-year-old on loan from French club Sochaux took his comeback full circle, thriving at RFK Stadium, the very venue he was supposed to play at for a U.S. World Cup qualifier the day after his accident.
"I've been waiting such a long time for this exact moment," Davies said. "I just wanted to go out there and succeed — not just go out there and work hard. I wanted to play well, to make an impact. And I was able to do it."
When Columbus right back Sebastian Miranda took down United midfielder Chris Pontius in the penalty area and referee Mark Geiger pointed to the spot, Davies stepped up in the 63rd minute, slotted his finish to goalkeeper Will Hesmer's left, and took to the corner flag for a rendition of his famed "stanky leg" celebration.
"There was no discussion - I was taking that ball," Davies said. "I told [Wolff] right away, 'I'm taking this.' And [United captain Dax McCarty] came over with the ball and handed it to me and said, 'We trust you. We believe in you.' And that says it all. The confidence was already flowing out of me, but when you hear that, I'm going to do what I need to do to have this team succeed. I walked up to the ball confidently and I put that ball in the back of the net."
Added McCarty: "I saw it in his eyes. I knew there was no way he was going to miss that penalty kick. I'll defer to a guy with that much confidence any day of the week."
Fourteen minutes later, the memorable evening for Davies became all the more so when he completed his brace with a strike from the run of play that showcased a glimpse of the elusiveness that made him such a compelling talent before the accident.
The sequence began when Columbus captain Chad Marshall, an otherwise authoritative presence at centerback throughout the contest, lost his footing in the penalty area and allowed Davies to run onto a long ball from left back Marc Burch.
Davies subsequently took a touch around the charging Hesmer and calmly drove a shot past Columbus defender Julius James, who had retreated to protect the goal line.
"He’s done a lot of work to get back here," said United coach Ben Olsen, who picked up his first win as D.C.'s full-time boss after operating under an interim tag last season. "It is emotional for myself and anybody that is close to him right now to see him come back in this way."
The night's proceedings took place two days after the driver in Davies' accident was sentenced to two years in jail, adding another poetic subplot to an already enthralling narrative.
"When someone survives an accident like I did, where basically your body is in shambles, the car is split in half, you're just lucky to survive such an incident," Davies said. "But to play soccer again, that's a miracle in itself. Since day one, it was, 'I'm going to get back, and I'm going to do whatever it takes to get on that field, and I'm not taking no for an answer.'"
The three combined goals from Wolff and Davies suggest United will receive a more substantial output from its strikers in 2011 after the entire unit found net just nine times last season during the team's miserable 6-20-4 campaign.
Wolff facilitated attacks from his withdrawn forward position throughout the match, although Ngwenya, his strike partner to start, wasn't in such fine form, pushing multiple shots well over the crossbar from dangerous positions.
Columbus pulled a goal back two minutes after Davies' second tally when United's Dejan Jakovic handled the ball in the penalty area and midfielder Robbie Rogers converted the ensuing penalty.
But it was too little, too late for the Crew, which struggled in the final third during its first MLS game following the departure of playmaker Guillermo Barros Schelotto. United held strong the rest of the way as it became clear the night would belong to Davies and his D.C. teammates.
"He's an emotional guy and he’s been through a lot," Olsen said. "To get two goals, you couldn't have wrote the story any better."
Here are the match highlights: