HANOVER, N.J. — Sean Davis doesn’t wear the New York Red Bulls’ armband, but the Homegrown midfielder embodies everything that makes a captain special — a selfless, team-first mentality, sacrificing personal glory for the betterment of the group.
That’s been especially true this year for the 26-year-old from Long Branch, N.J.
“For me, the most important thing at this level is winning,” Davis told Pro Soccer USA. “I want to do whatever is necessary to help the team win. Especially this year, I think that I’ve had to sacrifice a little bit more compared to years past, I’ve had to adapt a little bit more to allow guys around me to play their best as well.”
For Davis, that particularly means forgoing offensive stats for more defensive coverage this season. Davis has no goals and two assists, his lowest attacking output since seeing limited action in his rookie season in 2015.
But he’s arguably never had a more important role on the Red Bulls than this year.
“He’s not on the field to be the benefactor of goals and assists, but he’s often at times starting plays and winning a ball and playing forward,” Red Bulls coach Chris Armas said. “And he understands that position, probably best of all the guys in the team and in that part of the field, anchoring the midfield, anchoring the back line, having the best maybe positional discipline, to understand when we’re committing so many numbers forward.”
Davis knew that would likely be his role when the Supporters’ Shield-winning 2018 season ended. Tyler Adams transferred to RB Leipzig, leaving a hole in the No. 6 spot. Cristian Casseres was considered by many to be the heir apparent, Marc Rzatkowski, who was re-signed a year after arriving on loan from Red Bull Salzburg, was considered an option.
But for the majority of the season, it’s been Davis quietly excelling in that position.
“For me, it’s just assessing what the team needs, having a good understanding of having a balance within the team that we need, especially for our system,” Davis said. “There is a lot of responsibility on my position to understand how the game is going — examine it, evaluate it, and find a way to make sure that we’re protected on both sides of the ball. Sometimes that sacrifices going forward and being an important piece in the final third, which is a part of the game that I do enjoy, But at the same time, I know that this is best for the team, and someone has to do it. I have no problem doing that.”
Davis has always had leadership qualities — he was a captain during his time at Duke University. But one of the biggest reasons Davis has no problem sacrificing for this team is because of how much the Red Bulls mean to him.
“Playing for this club is amazing. It’s like my national team,” Davis said. “I grew up playing here, and I really appreciate playing in front of my family, most importantly, and my friends and so I try to show that in training every single day. I try to show that in games.”
Davis started 28 of the 30 games he played in this year and his 2,557 minutes were the most among field players.
Davis was 10th in Major League Soccer with 50 clearances, seventh with 89 tackles and fifth with 56 tackles won. He was fourth with 53 interceptions, 16th with 174 duels won and 12th with 223 recoveries.
The ultimate success for Davis is three points after 90 minutes, but there are other wins on the day as a defensive midfielder.
In that role, Davis said he’s sitting deeper this year to allow Rzatkowski more offensive freedom, taking some of the defensive responsibility off the versatile German midfielder, and helping the club’s more creative players like Kaku, Danny Royer and Josh Sims shine.
“I think its a combination of having a lot of defensive actions, breaking up plays, but also being good on the ball and finding our creative players,” he said. “I feel like I have more defensive responsibility now that Tyler’s not here. But I feel like I did a lot of that dirty work last year as well and that helped us be successful. I would say this year, I’m more conscious of it just because I think that’s what our team needs.”
The Red Bulls this year are a vastly different team than when Davis first joined the team after signing as a Homegrown in Dec. 2014. In many ways, he’s the last man standing in a midfield that once included Sacha Kljestan, Dax McCarty, Felipe and Adams.
Davis said a valuable lesson he learned from McCarty is one he uses today when he’s subjected to outside criticism.
“What I learned from when Dax left is you can’t really control what people say on the outside, all you can do is focus on your own performances,” he said. “I feel like I’ve matured enough where you don’t really pay attention to outside noise, and you just focus on your game — focus on showing up on the weekend and giving absolutely everything for the team.”
Davis will continue to do that, through the trials and tribulations of a trying season that saw the Red Bulls suffer a 23-point drop year over year and finish sixth in the East.
“You could talk about the slow start, dragging in the summer, with all the international call-ups and injuries we faced, and then the playoff push, and I feel like I’ve been there for the team and from a leadership standpoint that’s something that I’m most proud of this year,” Davis said. “And again, it’s not easy to see that from the outside, but you just hope that your teammates and the staff appreciate that. I think that’s been important for us this year.”