Jake Davis only just turned 22. But the day in question seven years back feels almost like a lifetime ago when he reflects on everything that’s happened since.

Davis was a typical kid growing up in Rochester, Michigan, a northern suburb of Detroit, albeit “the biggest soccer junkie out there,” in his own words. He was a standout player for Vardar, a leading youth club with a rich history and one of the founding members of MLS NEXT. Then, one day, his parents sat him down to ask a momentous question.

“When I was 15, the truth is that I was a good player on this Vardar team, and people around me thought that maybe I was good enough to go somewhere else and play,” Davis recalled to MLSsoccer.com during a one-on-one conversation earlier this year.

“My dad, at some point, and my family asked me a question: ‘Do you want to try and be a pro? Like, truly try? You can stay in Michigan, you can play for Vardar for three years, you can go to Michigan State and play college and then maybe have a chance. But going somewhere else will give you a better chance.'”

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Climbing the ladder

Sporting Kansas City have long operated one of the more comprehensive youth development systems in MLS. A key pillar is a residential program to welcome players from other areas of the US – and occasionally beyond, as in the case of current first-team star Dániel Sallói, a transplant from Hungary – to bolster their ranks of talent in light of what the club considers a limited local pool.

As with other ambitious academies around the league, the central idea is to speed up the developmental curve in order to produce more pro-ready prospects at younger ages.

“Maybe there was a next step to take,” said Davis. “So then Sporting reached out.”

SKC were interested in Davis and offered him a place in the program, which involved leaving Michigan and moving in with a host family in Overland Park, Kansas.

“I was never like the kid like, ‘Ha yeah, I'm going to Sporting Academy, they want me to sign.’ It was never like that. I just like to play the game,” he added. “I was, I don't know if the word’s aloof, but my dad was saying, 'This is a good opportunity, would you want to do it?'

“I don't know if I really recognized how much of a jump that is – 15, moving away from your family. Looking back now, I don't know if I really grasped that. And so I was like, 'Yeah, I want to do this, I'm committed, I want to become better and I want to try to do everything I can to be a pro and not waste the opportunity.'”

In doing so, he followed in the footsteps of Sallói, Gianluca Busio, Felipe Hernández and many others who’ve left the world they knew to make Kansas City their second home in hopes of raising the ceiling on their potential.

The scope of Sporting’s academy project is such that Bleacher Report partnered with MLS and Audi to produce a five-part, behind-the-scenes documentary about it several years ago, and Davis wound up being one of its main subjects. One of the central themes of the series is that as skilled as these teenagers may be, as carefully as the club nurtures their potential, the majority of them will fall short of what’s required to earn a pro contract, let alone make it as a first-team regular.

In order to earn his place, and then climb the ladder, Davis had to embrace that reality more quickly than most.

“Living with a host family, moving away when I was 15, it put me in an uncomfortable place to learn new things that eventually taught me how to deal with them in the future,” he said. “I just think everyone knows putting yourself in uncomfortable situations is good, because you learn new things. You don't always want to be comfortable.

“So I think I kind of got a head start.”

Jake Davis - Sporting Kansas City - 2

Under the radar

He maintains that he was no wunderkind, receiving little of the attention directed towards the likes of Busio, who gave him advice on the path in front of him, becoming a close friend and later a housemate when he moved out on his own.

“I'm almost glad I wasn't involved necessarily in the hype sometimes,” he said. “Especially when I was younger. When I was in the academy I was kind of the underdog. No one really saw that I was a good player right away, but they saw that I worked hard and was committed to becoming a better player. And I'm glad I always had to chase – well, not chase, just work towards something.

“This isn't a bad thing at all. It’s just, some of the players in MLS, from a young age have been under the microscope and in the media, at national team camps, and ‘the youngest kid to score…’,” he added, noting that he got a look at the hype machine when it was applied to Busio. “The thing is, this is why he and I are good friends, because I think we think alike. There's no satisfaction, like, you just want more, you want to keep improving.”

Davis chuckles when he thinks back to his opening moments in SKC colors.

“I don't know if you can go back and find the film, but my first-ever game for the academy was horrible,” he remembered. “Someone passed me the ball, it went under my foot, went out of bounds, after the throw-in, I fouled the guy. Then the next time someone passed me it, I passed it out of bounds. It was such a new level.

“I make jokes about that. But it was good for me to feel that type of challenge, because I'm like, 'Oh, shoot, this is gonna be hard.' But I'm very committed and I wanted to be better and again, it wasn't like a walk in the park. Nothing was. There's a lot of adversity and I think that as much as the academy coaches challenged me, I wanted to prove to them – because I wasn't like, the starlet in the academy. I wasn't that guy. I just wanted to keep proving that I can be a player.”

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Taking the opportunity

Davis was a central midfielder on arrival, and spent most of his academy career in the middle of the park, eventually reaching Sporting’s MLS NEXT Pro side, signing a homegrown contract at age 19 in 2021, then earning an invite to the first team’s preseason last year. When his big break arrived, however, it was in a different spot.

As SKC struggled badly out of the gates in 2023 – they went winless in their first 10 league matches – a wider injury crisis soon drained manager Peter Vermes’ options at right back, so he gave Davis a try in a US Open Cup game vs. Tulsa Athletic last April. The player himself had expected to get a shot in his preferred position, however, and expressed as much in a phone call with his father, Jason, who works in adidas’ soccer marketing department.

“So I call my dad and I'm like, 'What the heck? I thought I’d get a chance at playing center mid against this team, but I'm playing right back,'” explained Davis. “He's like, ‘Are you playing?’ I'm like, 'Yeah I'm playing right back.' But he said, ‘Alright, no complaints. Just go play. Just do everything you can to help the team win and don't worry about it.’

“He actually said to me, ‘Maybe it'll change your career.’”

Those words proved prophetic. Davis showed well in that 3-0 win, giving Vermes faith that he could handle the role even while learning its intricacies on the job. With steady distribution, a relentless engine and enough athleticism to survive one-on-one situations with opposing left wingers, the homegrown showed a remarkable ability to process and apply the game’s lessons in real-time.

From mid-May forward, Davis started 31 consecutive matches across all competitions, including SKC’s run in the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs, a streak that’s continued this season with four straight 90-minute outings. His performances were such that the club’s communications department dubbed it a “snub” when he was left off MLSsoccer.com’s 22 Under 22 presented by BODYARMOR list, and not without reason.

He did, however, earn SKC's Defensive Player of the Year award, and so far in ‘24 he's played a key role in stifling the likes of LAFC's Dénis Bouanga, the reigning MLS Golden Boot presented by Audi holder, and new San Jose Earthquakes winger Amahl Pellegrino as Kansas City start the season undefeated. That trend could continue Saturday evening on Matchday 6, when SKC host the reborn LA Galaxy attack (8:30 pm ET | MLS Season Pass).

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"Internal motivation"

“Jake's a gamer. That's the best way to say it,” said Vermes during last autumn’s playoff run. “There are days in training I'm yelling at him and he has no idea what I'm saying. And somehow he comes out at game time and he just makes it happen. I give him all the credit in the world. He's one of those kids that has jumped into a position and, by the way, he hasn't played that position for a long stretch of his career by any means. He was more of a midfielder most of his career, but he's taken to this really quickly, and his instincts are what have helped him be incredibly successful.”

His underlying numbers are startling. As Armchair Analyst Matt Doyle noted in picking Davis as his breakout player candidate for SKC in 2024, last year the Michigander ranked in:

  • the 91st percentile of all MLS fullbacks for tackles
  • the 81st percentile for interceptions
  • the 76th percentile for passes attempted
  • the 84th percentile for pass completion percentage
  • the 67th percentile for progressive passes, all according to Opta data.

As he’s grown more comfortable, Davis has been more adventurous going forward, building his understanding with star right winger Johnny Russell. He’s shown clever movement on and off the ball, playing his part in the flowing buildups by which SKC have scored some beautiful team goals this year.

That, combined with his tenacity and intensity in both directions, has endeared this transplant to the home faithful at Children’s Mercy Park, many of whom have taken to social media to advocate for Davis to gain greater consideration from the US national teams, be it as a contender for this summer’s Olympic squad or as a longer-term prospect for the full USMNT.

“I mean, I was a fan once too,” said Davis, “and I don't know if you can get this out of this, but I'm the biggest soccer junkie out there. I love watching soccer. I mean, you could ask my teammates, I'm always watching whatever game is on that day: Premier League, Bundesliga, LaLiga, whatever it is. But as a soccer fan, and I just think as a genuine person, I show respect to the fans, and they'll show it back. I try to take every chance I get with them to show them that I value them and I'm very thankful for them, too.”

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Planting roots

The initial homesickness he experienced during his early days in Kansas has now given way to a quiet confidence and a hunger for more, to see where his current run of form might take him. Whereas Davis once took every opportunity to return home to Rochester to see his family, now he’s just as likely to plan a trip further afield with Busio and other friends.

“I think they are getting a different level of maturity,” said Vermes earlier this year on the topic of Davis and other members of the academy’s residential program. “There's a success on the field, but there's a success off the field, and I would say that there are guys, their success on the field comes because they are mature enough to deal with the situation off the field. It's an internal motivation that they have.”

Davis’ story is just one more reason for the burgeoning optimism around SKC – a far cry from last spring, when a brutal spate of injuries left them a deep hole to dig out of for the rest of the season. Given that 2023 ended with massive momentum and a memorable playoff series win over their new rivals St. Louis CITY SC, the Sporting blue sky is the limit right now.

“Everyone came in fit and was focused on the soccer. We all know what we need to do,” said Davis. “So I think all of us have given ourselves the best chance to have an even better season and an even better start to this season than last year.”

Jake Davis - jogging