Photograph and copyright owned by Wellington Phoenix – facts and figures by James Rhys
When Wellington Phoenix announced the signing of Ulises Dávila in July 2019, few knew what to expect from the former Chelsea youngster.
Head coach Ufuk Taulay was full of praise for the former Mexican age-group international he had brought in to replace the creative talents of the club’s rising star, Sarpreet Singh, who had just departed for Bayern Munich.
Dávila arrived from Indian Super League side Dehli Dynamos, where he had managed just one goal and no assists in six appearances, and had hardly been a prolific creator at any of his previous clubs, so questions were certainly raised over his suitability to replace the outgoing Singh, who had provided five goals and seven assists in his final season.
The Mexican midfielder first rose to prominence for his hometown club Guadalajara, emerging from the youth ranks to represent Chivas in both the Primera Division and the Copa Libertadores. His performances caught the eye of Premier League big spenders Chelsea, making him the Blues’ first ever Mexican player as they snapped him up on a five-year deal.
Like many other prodigious young talents who arrived at Stamford Bridge, Dávila would never make a competitive appearance for the club. Instead he spent the duration of his contract out on loan at a series of clubs including Chelsea’s Eredivisie feeder club Vitesse, and Spanish Segunda Division outfits Sabadell and Cordoba, where he enjoyed fruitful spells.
After his release from Chelsea, Dávila returned home to Mexico, joining Liga MX side Santos Laguna on a three-year deal. He would go on to make 56 appearances, scoring seven goals as Santos finished 11th, 13th and 8th before departing for India.
Having arguably failed to live up to the promise shown early in his career, you could have been forgiven for expecting the marquee signing to join the A-League’s long list of imported flops, but few could have been prepared for the impact that El Mago would make.
Since arriving in the A-League, Dávila has been nothing short of a revelation.
Able to play out wide, up front or behind the striker, Dávila’s versatility has made him a perfect fit for Taulay’s fluid 4-2-2 formation. This season alone has seen him utilised as an attacking midfielder, out wide, and even up front as a centre forward as the club’s forward line was devastated by fitness and disciplinary issues.
Dávila played a pivotal role in guiding the Phoenix to third in his first season at the club, and a career high return of 13 goals and five assists saw the Mexican maestro finish his first season as the club’s leading goal-scorer and earned him a Johnny Warren Medal nomination.
Talay spoke highly of his experience and leadership at his unveiling, and with Luke DeVere missing with a long term injury and former captain Steven Taylor departing for an unsuccessful spell in India, Dávila was handed the armband ahead of his second season.
With the pandemic forcing the club a new home for the season across ‘The Ditch’ in Wollongong, ‘El Mago’ was given the responsibility of leading his teammates as they embarked on a difficult campaign away from home. While team performances have fallen slightly short of last year (at time of writing they sit ninth on the ladder) the Mexican has thrived under the pressure of this new leadership role and has continued to light up the division.
Despite the obstacles in his way, Dávila has already racked up seven goals, four assists and created 41 chances in just 17 games this season, becoming the club’s fifth all time leading goal-scorer in the space of 49 games.
He’s on track to match, if not better, his career-best season and has arguably been the standout performer in the A-League, which is no mean feat given the competition he faces from the likes of Jamie Maclaren, Alessandro Diamanti and breakout youngster Alou Kuol.
Worryingly for Wellington fans, Dávila’s contract is up at the end of the season, and their star man could be snapped up for free come the end of June.
The Mexican was linked with a move away from the A-League after a superb debut campaign, but opted to stay out of loyalty to Talay. With a second successful campaign under his belt, Dávila will undoubtedly be attracting the attention of countless potential suitors.
Talay’s two-year deal is also set to expire at season’s end and the head coach is in no rush to sign an extension as he is linked with other roles, including the now vacant Melbourne Victory job.
Dávila has clearly found a home for himself at Wellington, who have built the team around him and given him the platform to enjoy his greatest tenure at any club in his senior career. However, with his manager potentially departing and the club at risk of missing out on the Finals Series, will the league’s star performer commit his future in a bid to create a legacy at the Phoenix, or capitalise on his recent success and follow Talay in search of bigger, and perhaps better, things?