PREGAME rituals are as much a part of soccer folklore as the game itself.
Take the goaltender who carries a kewpie doll with him, placing it just inside the goal area. Or the defenseman who leaves his teammates 10 minutes before every game, returning to the dressing room -- where he removes his six front teeth and stores them in an old metal container. Or Steve David, who among other superstitious things, reaches down and pats the stadium grass as he jogs into his position on the forward line. Steve David has one other important ritual -- he must score at least one goal per game or face nightmarish consequences that evening.
"If I don't score, I don't sleep," says David. "I am very aware of my role as a goal-scorer. And this is what I have to do."
Twenty-seven year old David has twice led North American League scorers, in 1975 for Miami and in 1977 for Los Angeles, and there may be no other player in the league with as much ability to put the ball in the back of the net.
He is according to Aztecs coach Terry Fisher, "a very frustrating player," lacking fundamentally in several areas. "All he can do," Fisher say, "is score goals."
David is a smooth-striding forward, a 10-flat sprinter who has more on the ball than speed. His speed, they say, was acquired while chasing down criminals in his homeland, Trinidad.
Steve's father and older brother each played for the National Team of Trinidad, but there's no denying who wears the star of the David family nowadays.
"I don't mind having the responsibility," he said during a break from an Aztecs workout at Hollywood Park. "I figure that if I get the ball in the right place, I'll get it in. Really, there's not a lot to scoring goals."
In 77 NASL games going into the 1978 season, David has scored 63 goals. He had 13 goals in a 19-game rookie season in 1974, scored 23 goals in 21 games in 1975 and 26 goals in 24 games last year.
"I play better when I'm happy," he says, preferring not to mention his 1976 statistics (1 goal, 13 games) and the troubles that led to his move from Miami to Los Angeles. "My speed works to my benefit, like Pele's eyesight works to his," David said. "I could be a good player without my speed, but it makes me that much better."
Lining up on the outside, David is able to control a ball while at top speed, outmaneuver a defender and take on a goalkeeper in one-on-one situations. He scored in each of the first four Aztec games last season and had at least one goal in 10 straight games later in the season, establishing a league record.
It all came to an end July 30 when David injured his knee in a collision with Mike Hewitt, the San Jose Earthquake goalkeeper. He spent the next few months on crutches and the winter in Tobago, contemplating his future.
"That's the only way anyone is going to stop that guy," Gabbo Gavric, coach of the Earthquakes, said that late-July afternoon. "Now, I don't mean it that way. He's a tremendous talent. It's a shame when something like this happens."
The loss of David might have cost the Aztecs the league championship. As it was, they wound up as the top-scoring team in the NASL (65 goals in 26 games), but it surely was a different team without David.
Reflecting, Terry Fisher said: "We never intended to pin it all on Steve David, but his absence did make a difference in our play. Losing him was not the reason we didn't make it to the finals; but having him would have made it easier for us to get there."
A healthy David allowed the Aztecs to play their wide-open, anything goes offense, with talented midfield players Charlie Cooke and George Best controlling the ball with the help of an attacking defense.
"Our style is ideal for a player like Steve David," Fisher said. "There's nothing nicer than seeing the ball in the back of the net. And, like I said, there's no one better at putting it there than him."
David began putting it in the nets early in his childhood. He and friends ran through the streets of Point Fortin, Trinidad, kicking oranges and grapefruits. He then started kicking tennis balls and became skilled at juggling softball-sized rubber balls.
He was originally signed by the Miami franchise of the NASL, but had some serious troubles with John Young, the team's coach. He was finally benched in his third season with the Toros. The Aztecs acquired his services shortly after the Toros moved to Fort Lauderdale.
"All Steve really needed was a change of scenery," said John Chafetz, former general manager of the Aztecs. "He's one of the most skilled players in the North American Soccer League and we knew what he could do for us. It was our intention to build our offense around him and George Best. And we did it."
David, a genuinely superstitious person, wasn't exactly looking forward to the move west, however. Once again, he had many a sleepless night. "I knew all about Southern California and the big earthquakes," he said. "I thought about playing in there and imagined myself on the field, on a breakaway, and having the ground open up and take me down. I've seen it happen in the movies, so I know it could happen."
Interestingly, the Aztecs' first game last season was in San Jose. Imagine David's feelings when he read the newspaper headlines after his two-goal performance: David Shakes Up Earthquakes. (Wasn't that supposed to read, Earthquake Shakes Up David?)
The Aztecs took an admitted gamble signing David, a player who has a shaky reputation around the league. One general manager syas David suffers from "Charlie Scottitis," a condition that haunts several National Basketball Association players. But David says it ain't so. And he says he plans to keep kicking in goals -- for the Aztecs.
"In all my soccer career, I've never sat on anybody's bench to watch a game," he said. "My strength as a player is my speed and my ability to take on defenders one-on-one. I think I can also put the ball where I want it. I don't have to use power or kick very hard or anything. I can place it where I want to.
"I really think I've got more ability than anyone in this league when it comes to scoring goals. I've looked at other guys and seen the chances they get and just blow. Scoring goals is a lot of pressure. You get in the box and that's where opponents are going to kill you, you're not supposed to be in the box."
Scoring, David says, "is something inherited. It's natural. I've always played up front and I've always been the leading scorer on any team I've ever played for. There's no other player on the team that outscored me. It's like it's built in."
David sets his goals high for a reason. He knows only one person, himself, can keep him from achieving whatever he strives (and strides) for. His strides are long and smooth.
"He's frustrating," Fisher syas, "because the people expect so much from him. I looked back on our season and I can say that he may have pushed himself, say, and average of 15 minutes a game. "He doesn't really play defense, he doesn't get behind the ball and dispossess, he hardly wins tackles.
"From a coaching standpoint, it's great to have a player like him because it scares the heck out of the opposition. He's capable of finding himself, breaking away and knocking the ball in the goal. There are very few athletes anywhere in the world with his breakaway speed."