Justin Davis is Minnesota United’s 27-year-old left back who has become a fixture for the team. Born in Litchfield Park Arizona, Davis actually spent many of his formative years in Michigan. So the Midwest is a comfortable place for the 5th year pro who has now made 109 appearances for Minnesota’s pro soccer teams.
This past week Davis was named Man of the Match by both Minnesota United and Northern Pitch contributors. He not only shut down everything on his left side of Minnesota’s defense third but contributed to the attack as well. He made an outstanding run to beat his defender and poke a loose Pablo Campos shot that was deflected in his direction. Davis also was named to the NASL Team of the Week for Week 7.
Davis has had an outstanding 2015 season so far and many including former Minnesota Kicks and US Soccer Hall of Famer Alan Willey feel he might be the most consistent player for United this Spring Season.
NP: Justin, I’m not sure how many Minnesota United fans realized you played forward quite a bit at the University of New Mexico. When did you make the transition to forward and back to defender. How difficult was that process?
JD: When I got to UNM, I started off as a defender. I was always a left back and that’s what the coaching staff wanted me to do in my first two years there. I worked my way into the starting lineup in that spot and as my career progressed they wanted me to move up top. I can’t really tell you why – if it was the system we were playing or my speed. But I played up top my last two years there. And I would say I scored a considerable amount of goals for a college player. But I always knew that if I was going to make the jump up (pro) that it would be at left back. So it was just one of those weird things.
NP: I would think that playing forward would have helped you both in your attacking skills as an outside back but also learning the mentality of a forward to do a better job of defending against them?
JD: I’ve always said that. Having played there you figure out where you need to be, where I should make that run. And I sort of flip that over and when I’m defending think, what would I do if I was in that (forwards) spot and it actually helps me a lot when I try to defend these guys. You know I didn’t plan for any of that to happen but it worked out really well for me that way.
NP: This is your 5th year playing in Minnesota and as an outside back and in that time I’ve seen the NASL get considerably better because the quality of the league has been getting better.
JD: My first game as a pro, when I first stepped on the field, it took me back a little bit. It was like, wow! This is really fast. I was flying around just to keep up. But then with the influx of better quality players and the growth of the league it’s again faster and the speed of play a lot quicker. It definitely helps having played in that position for 4 years and starting most of the games. You just sort of get used to it and with more experience everything slows down a bit for you. So I’ve been fortunate. I’m not as taken back by as I once was.
NP: I’m also curious also about the subtleties of the position and your improvement. I noticed on one play last week where you were tracking back with a player and your timing was perfect. You didn’t over commit but when the player was weighted on his balance foot with the ball near it, you stabbed that ball and not only stripped him but turned the play around the other direction.
JD: It’s basic 101 defending stuff. I think I’m a lot more patient than I used to be. I just think that comes with maturity and game experience. I don’t fly into tackle as much anymore. I stand back more and wait for other guys to track back (support) and then pick your moments to put your foot in there and not necessarily diving in – but to take a stab at it you make sure your body position is right. I know I’m a lot better at it than I once was.
NP: Another thing loon fans might not realize is that you played for Des Moines Menace for several summers while you were in college. Playing college ball in the Southwest, how did you end up in Des Moines Iowa during his summers?
JD: Playing in New Mexico, it’s that part of the country where there aren’t really too many PDL teams there. The summer after my freshman year my coach and the Menace people were in touch with each other and they wanted a couple of guys. I think there were three or four of us who went up there that summer. We were sort of ambassadors of our college program and I ended up playing there for two summers in 2007 and 2008. I really liked it there. I grew up in Michigan so I’ve always sort of been a Midwestern sort of guy. It worked out really well. Plus they have a great organization and draw the highest amount of fans of any PDL team and the support there is pretty great for that level. So that was a pretty cool two years for me.
NP: And you ended up in Minnesota for your pro career. How did that happen?
JD: You can thank Mr. Kyle Altman for that one. He would come back and train with us at UNM during the offseason and I got to know him through the guys. When I got out (of school) and the Real Salt Lake (MLS Draft) stuff didn’t work out for me he remembered me and reached out. I was a little hesitant at the time. I don’t know if I was concerned that it might be my last opportunity or what. I talked to Kyle and Kevin Friedland then I got up here sometime in January and a month and a half of trial and it was just a weird sort of chance that it worked out for me. It’s all about who you know. You just have to know the right people.
NP: It’s no secret that Minnesota really likes to push their full backs up the field to join in the attack. Does that change from match to match depending on opponents and strength of their wide players in attack? Their certainly seems like there our games where Kevin Venagas might be pushing a bit more then you and vice versa.
JD: Kevin likes to “go” a lot more then I do. I don’t think it’s so much a part of our game plan. His first though is always, go, go, go. When he goes I have to stay back. With him being back there the last two years it’s made me sit back a little bit more. That’s not to say that I don’t go up a lot. But it is a balance act between us. We’d both like to do it but we both understand that it’s defending first and we may not be the speediest back there. So, one of us has to be back just in case. It can be dangerous I think and there are teams that try to replicate that. But we’re pretty fortunate to have he and I and that we both enjoy going forward and are both pretty good at it.
NP: And speaking of that back line, tell me a little bit about those guys? I know your coach Manny Lagos, feels he has the best defensive team in the league.
JD: Ya! It definitely helps that we were together all of last year and now again the start of this year. It really helps having Tiago and Cristy (Cristiano Diaz) as solid center backs. It’s really nice playing with those two. And Viva (Venegas) and I bring something to the game as well. I think we’ve been pretty solid defensively these first couple of games this season. We’ve maybe given up one soft goal and then there’s the San Antonio game. I won’t saying anything more about that – it is what it is. But ya, we’ve been pretty good.
NP: This past week on Twitter, Alan Willey, former Minnesota Kicks and US Soccer Hall of Fame player said, you might be the best player on the field for the Loons so far this season. That had to feel pretty good coming from him?
Shout out to @DouginDavis for his performance tonight brilliant defensively then scores GWG he has been the team MVP so far this season.
— Alan Willey (@alanwilley9) May 17, 2015
JD: Ya, it did. I had to Tweet back at him saying it was a pretty bold statement. But I don’t consider myself a high profile guy on the team or anything. But coming from him it was definitely appreciated. Other people may feel differently but coming from him I’ll definitely take it.
NP: In that Twitter conversation with Alan you also stated you felt like you needed to do something because you gave up your mark on the goal scored by Indy Eleven. I’ve watched that play a half dozen times or so and I haven’t been able to figure out how that was your player? While I don’t think the team as a whole defended well on that particular set piece, it made me wonder how you do defend on set pieces like corners. I assume you don’t zone but pick a player? Is that determined before the match or does everyone just pick a guy at the moment of the set play and let everyone know who you have? How does that work?
JD: In the first half I had a completely different mark. I can’t remember who but somebody else who was hanging out at the top of the box. They brought in an extra number then what we had prepared for. So there was a free man in the box. I can’t remember if it was their second or third corner in the first half and I think it was Peña that got free and had a good chance but missed it. At half time we went back over everything and figured out who the extra guy was and I said, I’ll take on that man. Sure enough, the first corner Peña scores. I think what happened is there was a little pick play and they crossed over in front of Pitch (Aaron Pitchkolan) and it was probably poor communication on my part to not call out the switch. He just slipped around and buried it. I took responsibility for it right away and it helped to score to make up for it.
NP: So it’s predetermined before the game who is going to be marking who?
JD: There is always something like 5 guys who we know are going to be up there on set pieces. So we’ll go through it on the board. You know, JD you’ve got so and so. Tiago you’ve got this guy. So, ya. It’s matched up right away.
NP: I’ve seen you play for a while now and talked to you over the years. You are a pretty honest player when it comes to team and personal performances. How frustrating was the beginning of the season when everyone had high expectations coming in?
JD: It’s hard because you can’t really do anything about the expectations. We knew we were going to be a good quality team based on last year and the quality of the new guys coming in. But we also knew that the league was getting better and the teams were getting better, meaning the teams we play were going to be tougher. So the talk in the offseason was how was the offense going to perform. We had Pablo back and some new players. How were these pieces going to fit together. We were still trying to figure out how we wanted to play with all these pieces. It wasn’t good enough but at the same time it wasn’t terrible. A draw on the road, 0-0 in the opener isn’t the worst result in the world. You want to get the three points but sometimes you’ll take the point. We did give up some soft goals in Ottawa. That was a weird game in itself with some tough conditions to play under. And, the scheduling hasn’t been that great either. We can thank the league for that. But slowly but surely we are starting to play better. There are spots were we need to get better in order to keep this going. But ya, it was definitely frustrating.
NP: Do you like the current lineup the last several weeks? There seems to be a bit more movement with the attacking players and that attack isn’t quite as static as it was earlier in the season?
JD: The thing is we have so many quality guys but everyone plays differently. So everyone has their idea of how the team should look – how they should play. If you switch two or three of the guys out you have completely different team and a totally different style of play. With Kalif (Alhassan) in there, I think he likes to play that #10 role and he brings that to the table. Some of the balls he plays out wide or through to Pablo are ridiculously good. It’s really fun to watch it on the film. Juliano in there, he was struggling a little bit earlier in the season but he has a great game this past week. But if he switches out with Greg Jordan he’s more of a defensive guy and a hard worker. So it changes things up again. But losing Jamie (Watson)…. He was in really good form and brought a lot of spark to us. Who’s going to take that spot? I have no idea and I’ll probably find out on Saturday. I thought JC did really well and that might be the option we go with.
NP: What sort of mental adjustments do you need to make positionally when there is more fluidity with players up front and in the middle? They are swapping sides and moving from center to wide positions and back again?
JD: Ya. Playing with Miguel on my side he sort of does that a lot. (Laughs) I’ve learned there are times when you just try to cover his spot for him. But I thought that was really cool, like the last couple of weeks when Jamie and Miguel would switch sides. That made us a lot more dynamic. If I was a defender playing against us, one time I’d have Miguel, a National Team guy going up against me blowing right by me and the next time I’d have Jamie who is drifting off to my side and he’s a really clever player himself. It just makes it a whole lot harder to defend and a cool thing to be able to throw out at other teams.
NP: You are now a seasoned pro. You have three big games coming up in the next two weeks. There is some tough competition coming into your house bookending a USOC game away at St. Louis. How do you guys prepare for that? Is it just business as usual or do you try to curtail some of your normal workout and personal activities?
JD: It’s sort of a balancing act. You know we had yesterday off and today (Wednesday). I wasn’t really expecting that so it’s a nice surprise. I think as cliched as it is, you really do take one of these games at a time. First things first is the league game. We dug ourselves into a hole so now we have to make up for it. Three points is massive at this point. Then with the Open Cup stuff we will have an extra travel day. But you know we have enough quality guys that if we have to change lineups for that, we have enough depth now where we can do that. There are guys that can definitely step in who haven’t seen many minutes in the league so far and get a result for us. If it’s an Open Cup match or if it’s a league game we have the guys to do it. So we’re not really that worried about it. We know these games are all big and our owners want us to do well in the Open Cup and get back into this league race.
NP: Best of luck to you on Saturday Justin as well as the rest of the season.