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Every roll of the ball: Sporting Kansas City’s Jake Davis



Thad Bell Photography

“You have to go,” said the mother of Jake Davis.

Jake – perhaps 8 years old at the time – was giving her maybe a third of his attention, and that’s generous. The other two-thirds was focused on the task. And the task was fun.

It didn’t matter that Jake was playing in a lame elementary school gym in his hometown of Rochester, Michigan. It didn’t matter that the gym was stuffy and constricting. It only mattered that Jake was playing soccer, futsal to be exact.

“I don’t want to go,” Davis said after mustering up enough courage to sound somewhat contentious.

But Davis had made a commitment. Through teary words of ‘Don’t take me there. I don’t want to play,’ he trudged to baseball practice to play for his dad’s team.

The exact word Davis used during our interview after Sporting Kansas City training at Compass Minerals National Performance Center last Tuesday was that he was “dragged” to baseball practice.

In 2022 – five years after joining the Sporting Kansas City Academy and a year-and-a-half after signing a first-team contract – Davis played only 15 minutes total in MLS for Peter Vermes’ squad.

The reward of “Every”

At age 15, Davis had made a commitment, to his first and true love. There were tears then too, this time of fear and loneliness. Because the commitment was a big one – leaving home to join Sporting’s academy while living with a host family. Five years later, however, Davis had paid much of his dues.

Thus, when the first team struggled through much of last season, the midfielder’s scant 15 minutes for the first team, even though he made 12 starts in 13 appearances for SKC II, may have seemed a pittance in the face of his effort and his dreams.

But Davis knew struggle. He was carrying a nagging groin injury when he first arrived in Kansas City. After Sporting helped him recover for three months, he finally stepped onto the training pitch.

“Whole new level,” was his reaction to the play he was dropped into with the academy.

“It was something I had not seen. The training sessions were focused on getting better at one specific thing that day. In Michigan, the team I played for – Vardar – the sessions weren’t bad, and obviously there was a focus to it,” Davis stated. “But here it was more intentional, like, ‘This is what we need to do to prepare you for this level.’ [It taught] you how to play the game in a smart way, not [by] instinct, having purpose in your actions in the game.”

The Sporting Kansas City Academy coaches, though not negative nor demonstrative, “got at” Davis.

“Going to training everyday with the coaches that were here at the time, I loved doing it. But it wasn’t easy. It wasn’t something that was all fun and jolly… I didn’t take it as ‘Screw this guy. I’m going to do my own thing.’ I took it in with an open mindset: ‘Alright, I’ll prove this guy wrong.’” Davis explained. “Every step of the way, I just wanted to prove myself even more after they were saying things to me… They would give me instruction and advice, and I wanted to prove that I could do that.

“And that wasn’t just one moment, that was every day at training, every academy game I played in, every Swope session I trained in, every chance I got with the 2nd team in the USL level when they were there, and so on up until now with the 1st team. I’m going to prove this guy wrong.” 

That courage used to emit a contentious balking at going to baseball practice had grown into a deep-seated desire to succeed, to use the struggle.

His longtime mentor, and the player it has long been thought he would replace, took special notice of Davis in preseason.

“I said it a few months ago [that] he was the one [pushing to break through],” said veteran midfielder Roger Espinoza. “And he has taken advantage of his opportunities. When you do that, they are going to reward you with it.”

In 2023, Davis has played in 10 of Sporting’s 18 matches with eight starts.

A mixed bag

But the bulk of his appearances have been at right back, not midfield. The position is not entirely new for the now 21-year-old Davis. He had played there at times with SKC II. Yet, as Davis tells it, after Vermes’ revealed he would start at right back for the first time this season in an Open Cup match versus Tulsa Athletic of the National Premier Soccer League back on April 25, Davis may or may not have gone home and pulled up footage of Brazilian right back Dani Alves for a last-minute tutoring session… okay, he did, maybe.

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That’s how you do that… not only is Davis aware that Austin striker Gyasi Zardes is kept onside by left back Tim Leibold in the 31st minute of last Saturday’s match, but Davis heads the ball safely away from goal.

Davis’s stint at right back has been a mixed bag. What else should one expect from a 21-year-old learning to play a newish position at a high level? On the backline, defense is job one. At times, Davis is out of position or overzealous in his defending, which leads to opportunities for the opposition and/or battles lost. At times, Davis is quick to recover from a mistake or to execute the fundamentals confidently, which reveals his tenacity and his attention to detail.

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Espinoza, perhaps Sporting’s most physical presence, knows a thing or two about being aggressive, and about being moved to a wide back position. It happened to him too. The former Honduran international came to learn that a back has to be more disciplined, more aware of the tactical nuance. But one can’t let risk take you out of the game.

“You have to be disciplined. But if you have to commit, you have to commit. You are going to get beat sometimes (‘Or get you a red card sometimes too,’ he joked.). You have to go a 100% in everything, and a majority of time, you are going to be successful,” Espinoza emphasized. “But if you don’t try it, you will never know… You can’t be playing scared always trying to delay, because if you give any player in the world some space, he is going to become Messi.”

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“Yesssss…,” exclaimed Davis when asked about having to be less aggressive in certain situations. No yellow card cautions yet…  “I’m a pretty aggressive player. In the past when I’ve played midfield [I haven’t] been afraid to get into a tackle and stick it to somebody. Playing in the defense, I’m not so worried about breaking up plays and slide tackling and being rough. It’s important to be aggressive in certain moments, but I’ve tried to stay focused on protecting the goal, staying connected with the back line.”

The focused aggression and tactical nuance have shown regularly.

“He has been doing that, especially [in the 1-1 draw at Vancouver Whitecaps on June 3rd],” declared Espinoza. “He knew that to win or tie the game [he had] to stay in his position. There were a lot of guys overloading his side, and he won about 10 headers within a minute. Good for him. That is what it takes to add points.”

In the attack – a key component for a right back within a 4-3-3 setup – Davis shown a few flashes of flair.

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That’s how that is done.

Davis has been mostly functional, however, allowing the more explosively talented others to do their thing in the attacking third. On the ball, the focus has been on making the right decisions.

“You have to be switched on for every roll of the ball, for 90 minutes, and not get comfortable back there. You are the last line, especially on the ball; you’re the last guy back there. You have to stay focused and make the right decisions,” he acknowledged. “In St. Louis, there was a play where I didn’t lose the ball, but I kind of got stuck on it and someone fouled me. After the game, Roger had a quick word with me, ‘Hey, take a good first touch, open up, go inside. Don’t let the guy come close to you.’”

Targeted success

Always, young, inexperienced MLS players are targeted by the opposition. Relentless attacks come at the newbies; defenders are more robust because they think the uninitiated are easy pickings.

“He competes for everything. He doesn’t shy away from physical challenges, and the other thing is that he pays attention,” said Vermes of Davis in a Kansas City STAR article by Daniel Sperry. “He’s concentrated on the game, and he learns from little situations that occur. He learns very quickly within the game. [It] doesn’t take a week thereafter.”

Davis, though, credits learning in the lead up to a match.

“Of course, you learn things in the game from the player you’re playing against or how the team plays. [A key is] definitely preparation before the game and having the knowledge of whom I’m playing against: what their strengths are, what they are not good at, how they are going to run, are they hard workers. Certain things like that help you gain better moments in the game…,” he said, before acknowledging Vermes’ observation. “I [do] try to process things more in the moment just so I’m prepared. Some people might think differently. I don’t think I’m the smartest guy. I don’t think I’m different because I take things any faster. But I try to make sure that I understand.”

Thus far, Sporting KC is 5-1-2 when the homegrown starts at right back in place of veteran and future Sporting Legend Graham Zusi. Zusi’s shoes are tough to fill. It’s doubly tough when Davis was inserted after Sporting got off to a 0-6-3 start.

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With his contentious courage, his commitment to the game he loves, his desire to prove doubters wrong, and his focused aggression, Davis has made not only former Sporting starlet and strong friend Gianluca Busio (wearing a #17 jersey) a fan, but much of Sporting’s fanbase who show #17 their appreciation.

Davis has their support and his teammates’. Said Espinoza, “Jake’s success is my success, and my success is his success.”

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