As the NASL hits the home stretch, Minnesota United has yet to establish a consistent starting XI. There’s been very little certainty as to who’s available to start due to injury and suspension woes. The most classic blunder is to never start a land war in Asia. Carl Craig refuses to fall victim to another classic blunder: never start someone else at left back when Justin Davis is available for selection.
“Whenever I don’t get a red card, I try to be out there,” Davis joked after Thursday’s training.
Amidst all of the injuries this season and the consistent red-card suspensions by which Minnesota United has found themselves sideswiped (Ibson’s two match suspension being the latest; Davis’ red card against Tampa Bay this spring caused more turmoil, however), he’s been on the field for all but one minute in his nineteen starts. A two-time reigning member of the NASL Best XI (2014, 2015), Davis’s playing time hasn’t been a surprise.
“I just try to be as consistent as possible. Out there, I’m looking to help Brent (Kallman), Tiago (Calvano), sometimes (Aaron) Pitch(kolan), so with the rotation you’re trying to build relationships with the guys out there. Lately, it’s also been helping Jeb Brovsky at right back and sometimes Damion Lowe’s been out there, too. It’s just about staying on the same page with those guys.”
As an attacker in college with the University of New Mexico, Davis’s transition to left back began when he signed with Minnesota in 2011. Focusing on the defensive side of the position over his first three years, Davis had something of a breakout year in 2014 when he notched four assists and helped guide the club to the Spring Season title. 2015 brought a career-high five goals and two assists as Davis’s attacking gene was relied on once again.
This year, however, he’s been pushed back to a defensive focus between a rotating cast at left wing and a game plan that places the attacking onus on those players.
“I think it’s just the different kind of players I’ve been paired with out there,” per Davis. “In the past, I played with guys who liked to cut inside and combined, and that helped me in getting forward a lot. That’s why goals and assists were pretty high for me as a defender. This year, I’ve been playing with guys who are predominantly left-footed and like to get wide, which is what I like to do as well. I’ve been trying to let them do their thing, and if the time is right for me to go forward I can do it. That shows — we have more shutouts this year already than we have over the past two seasons, so there’s definitely a correlation with that.”
With United failing to establish a week-in, week-out center back pairing for various reasons, and a highly-analyzed goalkeeper swap during the summer, it might be a bit of a surprise that the club has kept so many clean sheets. Davis, averaging 3 interceptions, 2.7 tackles, and 1.5 clearances per game through 19 matches, has had a big part of that success. In a league that’s been heavily reliant on wing play this season, Davis has been kept busy.
United is coming off of a four-point week where the club shut out both Tampa Bay and Jacksonville. With the club securely fixed into fourth place in the combined table, Minnesota will need to turn some of those draws into wins if they hope to host a playoff game in their final NASL year.
Davis will be the first to highlight some of these dropped points. “You’ve gotta look at the game in Jacksonville, 2:30 game, a heat index over 100ºF, it was a really tough game to play. With four points and two shutouts, we’ll take pride in that week defensively. We’ve been solid in not giving up too many chances and Sammy Ndjock has made some really good saves lately. Yeah, we’ll take it. You want six; you want to get three points out of every game, but you’ve got to be realistic.”
With their next match at Miami (a team that beat them 4-0 in July and has been called “the toughest opponent in NASL” by head coach Carl Craig), the team will need to summon their best defensive performance of the year. Miami played a match in Ottawa on Wednesday which should help neutralize the travel Minnesota is undertaking. If the club is going to turn potential draws into wins, however, they’ll need to take their chances and capitalize in front of net.
With just one goal this season so far, Davis wouldn’t mind adding to the scoresheet again.
“Yeah, I’d love to get forward more. I’ve been trying to do it more over the past couple of weeks. It’s what I’m good at, and I’ve been trying to work with Ish Jome and Lance Laing about playing the ball in that I like and that I used to get from Miguel Ibarra and Kalif Alhassan. They’re still figuring it out. I don’t think they’ve played with a left back who likes to get forward like that before.”
Davis is looked at as one of the players who’s most likely to make the jump to MLS with the club next season. While there was some verbiage that implied an MLS option for next season, the club couldn’t sign a true MLS option for 2017 because they weren’t officially in the league at that time. Similar left backs in MLS (Jordan Harvey, Chris Klute, Taylor Kemp) make around $115,000 in base salaries. Between his attacking potential, his reliable defense, and his status as the longest-tenured Loon in history, Davis appears to have earned a six-figure salary for next season.