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Where is the ceiling for Sean Davis?

With the Red Bulls captain thriving under Gerhard Struber, how far can his talent take him and the team?

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MLS: Philadelphia Union at New York Red Bulls Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

A newly-hired manager enters a club with his own tactical ideas and preferences. Signings will be made, and the existing players are forced to adapt or leave. Sometimes the result can be the reinvigoration of a once promising career, allowing for a somewhat dormant talent to thrive with new responsibilities.

Since being signed to a Homegrown contract prior to the 2015 season, New York Red Bulls midfielder Sean Davis has arguably not been utilized to the best of his abilities or lived up to his initial promise. While more of a vertical playmaker at the academy and college levels, he settled into a link-up and defensive role as a professional. A distinct generalized versatility can lead to the dreaded labeling as a “tweener,” a player that can slot into a variety of positions but thrive at none of them. The team’s storied recent history of midfielders has included skilled veterans such as Dax McCarty, Sacha Kljestan, and Felipe, offering the opportunity to learn and grow. However, this also forced him into ill-fitting roles and fewer minutes, a developmental issue for a late arrival to the professional game after four years of college.

Throughout a decorated Red Bulls career, Davis performed admirably in the holding position. While not possessing the temperament of an out-and-out “six” – a romanticized yet outdated role evoking stocky, slide-tackling bulldogs and bruising physical marvels – his contributions have been more befitting of an evolving football world, demanding this deep-lying player also be the starting point of the attack. While perhaps an attacking role in the vein of Kljestan could have been a better use for his talents under previous managers, the sport may have finally caught up to his skillset.

Under Gerhard Struber, Davis has experienced career rejuvenation, a necessary second wind at the age of 28. The Austrian manager’s vertical style is something of a perfect fit for the Holmdel native’s strengths. For several seasons, he has been one of the few Red Bulls capable of playing a lofted diagonal pass of any significant distance, which has become one of the main methods of attacking this season. Whether pushing to the corner or dropping the ball directly over the opposing back line, the purpose is to push forward, regardless of how low percentage the opportunity may be.

As noted by Total Football Analysis, Struber’s Barnsley teams would rely on the center midfielder, described as a “single pivot”, to “drop in between the center backs” in order to “link the defenders with the midfielders while also offering to bring the ball out of defense.” By maintaining a narrow structure in possession, there is more space for the fullbacks and strikers to make runs, opening up space for Davis to play these long balls. The strategy could be described as throwing a lot of mud at the wall to see what sticks, but the chances for success are increased by placing the right throwers in a position to succeed.

This season, Davis has been one of the league’s best attackers, despite playing in this deeper-lying role. In addition to having above-average short possession and key pass numbers, he is in the top-15 for “passes entering the final third”, “passes under pressure”, and “progressive passes towards the opponent’s goal.” His defensive statistics continue to be stellar as well, showing the captain winning aerial duels, tackles in the middle third, and interceptions, which is an embodiment of the Red Bulls’ overall goals. The gegenpress is not man-to-man but a holistic strategy built on creating traps and forcing the opponent into low percentage decisions, upon which the captain appears to be capitalizing.

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Ignoring the context of tactics or unprocessed statistics, Davis has simply looked better under Struber. There is more composure when under pressure, the long balls have become frequent and more accurate, and the team is gaining possession after his tackles. Whether due to the wisdom provided by maturity or experiencing a leap forward under the new manager, he is making a noticeable and defined impact on matches, appearing to control proceedings instead of settling for mere involvement. Based on the widespread growth of several players, the Austrian is likely to be at least partially responsible for the change.

“In terms of Gerhard, I think as a coach he’s been excellent for us and really good for the group in so many different ways,” Davis said recently. “He’s given us a lot of great ideas with the ball, against the ball… He’s been very clear about what’s expected. Regardless of your age, regardless of how much experience you have, the attitude and commitment that you have to show is very important to him.”

SOCCER: JUL 22 International Champions Cup - Red Bulls v Chelsea
Seen here during his rookie season in 2015, Sean Davis is finally flourishing as captain under Gerhard Struber
Photo by Tony Quinn/Icon Sportswire/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Many struggle under a new manager, particularly those making such arduous physical demands, oftentimes resulting in roster turnover. The existing Red Bull system shows no quarter to aging, a cornerstone being to never give someone his final contract. Ever-fit and yet to miss a minute this season, Davis has managed to not only hold onto his starting spot but hit another gear, which elicits questions of how much higher he can fly. Immense potential and talent were always discussed, usually in the same breath as his attitude and personality, with the former qualities finally appearing to catch up to the always apparent existence of the latter. For all of the lip service paid to his importance to the Red Bulls, Struber is the first manager to actually empower him, granting the freedom to take chances and run the show.

Any discussion of an American footballer turns to an examination of his hypothetical use for the United States national team. Manager Gregg Berhalter is searching for a ball-playing defensive midfielder, cycling through a variety of unsuitable test subjects in search of a back-up for the inimitable Tyler Adams. With youth movements being all the rage, Davis was unsurprisingly not included on the 59-player Gold Cup preliminary roster. While his international prospectus is unlikely to change, continued improvement and growth under Struber is certainly coming at an opportune time. The 2022 World Cup is in the near future, and the depth chart is largely unsettled due to a lack of suitable candidates. Perhaps a veteran appearing to fit the exact tactical needs of the system would be a useful addition to the pool, a return to the program for the one-time Bradenton scholar.

For now, Davis continues to be the self-cooling engine for the Red Bulls, providing a steadying presence that drives the team forward while also eliminating any threats from the opponent. Seven seasons and three managers later, one of the standard-bearers of the club’s development pathway has finally found himself in a perfect tactical set-up, an unselfish player in a system reliant upon tireless work, intelligence, and skill. There are decidedly worse ways to spend the prime years of a career, especially if the club captures a trophy under his captaincy, cementing his legacy in the club’s pantheon.