World Cup fever has taken a hold and all eyes are on the action in Brazil. But here locally in the Twin Cities, the Minnesota United FC are stealing the limelight, recently winning the spring season championship in the North American Soccer League.
A key to their success is Justin Davis, who has transitioned into a defensive role this year and has given United FC a dynamic option at outside back.
He sat down with us to discuss his career to-date and why he never travels without a foam roller.
MMG: When did you start playing soccer?
DAVIS: Back in the rec days of four and five year olds. I’ve been doing this going on 22 years now.
MMG: And when did you realize you wanted to play at a competitive level?
DAVIS: We had to make a decision about what club league to play for when I was about 10 so that’s when it got to that little higher level.
And then when I got to high school that’s where you pick one sport and stop doing all the baseball stuff and start focusing on soccer.
MMG: So in high school you decided you wanted to pursue playing soccer at the college and professional level?
DAVIS: Yeah, for me, my family moved from Michigan to Phoenix and that was where you play year round for me and my brother.
He chose baseball and I made the choice of soccer and you played on a higher level club team and it was a year round thing for us.
MMG: How did you come to play for the Minnesota United?
DAVIS: Through my college team. I went to the University of New Mexico and the old captain here was Kyle Altman, he was from Albuquerque, and so he would come back in the off-season and train with us [at UNM].
Once I graduated, I got drafted but ended up not making the roster at Real Salt Lake. He reached out to me, brought me up on trial, and a month later I was signed.
MMG: You came out of the gate like gangbusters in your first season with the team with a game-winning goal against the Puerto Rico Islanders. Tell me about that experience.
DAVIS: It was a little crazy cause it was only my second or third start with the team. The first couple of games I wasn’t seeing the field, which is tough to do as a rookie.
Then I finally got in the week before that and I was able to close-out a game for us. And then with the Puerto Rico game I was kind of in a groove there; so, as I play, I like to get forward and the opportunity just presented itself and I got a nice cross in and I was able to finish it.
For me, being only my second start, I was pretty thrilled with it.
MMG: Since then, what has been the highlight of your time with the Minnesota United FC?
Winning the championship in 2011, my rookie year, that was a big accomplishment. And then getting back to the finals the year after that, which is pretty tough to do.
But I’d say the start of this year has been awesome for us. The team’s playing really well. I’m healthy, coming off an injury last year.
So I feel great and being able to play every minute of every game and to have the success that we are having is pretty special.
MMG: How would you describe your role on the team this season as you have made a transition into defense?
DAVIS: Yeah, as you get a little bit older you become one of the mature players on the team – so not just flying forward like I did in my first two years.
Be a calming presence for the guys, be calming on the ball and just managing the game in the right away – I think that’s what I bring to the team.
MMG: You had a successful career at the University of New Mexico. How would you compare the experience of competing at the collegiate level to now?
DAVIS: I think it’s just a different game. I think the college game is big guys running full speed for 90 minutes and it’s just a battle out there.
Now here there is a little more finesse to it, a lot on the passing side of the game and I think, as a player, you like to do that more then just put the ball up in the air and the biggest and strongest guy wins.
I think that’s what the D1 levels big into and this league here is getting a lot better so that the style of soccer and the teams are getting much better.
MMG: On game day, how do you mentally and physically prepare to compete? Any pre-game rituals?
DAVIS: I used to be into the superstition side of it. I put my left cleat on before my right cleat and all that stuff. But as far as pre-game meals or anything like that, I don’t have anything special that I do.
I feel like if you do that, you get caught up into it. If something goes wrong, it messes with you mentally. I just try to relax throughout the whole day.
Listen to some country music before the game and kind of relax.
MMG: Do you have any warm-up routine besides what you do as team to practice right before a game?
DAVIS: I like to get here a little bit early and I go through a bunch of mobility stuff cause my flexibility is pretty bad.
Our strength coach told me to work on that a lot this year so for about 20-30 minutes before each practice, each game, I’ll have a foam roller and a med ball and go through this progression of stretches that I do before everything.
MMG: How do you maintain your energy and focus during the game, especially if part of the match you are not on the field?
DAVIS: I think our baseline of fitness is really good. We put a lot of focus on that this off-season. They gave us workout plan while I was out of town and then all of the work we’ve done in the pre-season.
You don’t see the results until a little bit later and I think they trained us the right way where we are seeing results now in the game.
So the game is the easy part and the training sessions are where we are putting in a lot of work so you fell fresh for the games and you are able to do it for 90 minutes, which is awesome.
MMG: What does a regular week of training and practice looks like now that you are in season?
DAVIS: Once the game finishes up, we’ll all do an ice bath and take care of our body that way. Sundays we’re over at Lifetime Fitness doing a pool regen session and then Mondays are our off day so we pretty much shut it down and do nothing, which is lovely. But then Tuesdays we are right back at it.
Tuesdays and Thursdays they call our heavy load days so there’s a lot of games where you are full pace and then we are also doing fitness on the side of that. Wednesday is kind of our lighter day where we go over tactics.
And then Friday is obviously pretty light as you don’t want to do too much before the game. I think they do a good balance of getting you recovered but then keeping you fit and on your toes.
MMG: How does diet and sleep factor into all this training and practice?
DAVIS: They’re huge on that. My diet has never been the best. I’ll say I have a thing for Oreos. Just eating healthy, especially on the road, every meal is picked by the club so the pastas, the rice, so you’re making sure you’re getting the right nutrients and carbohydrates before the game.
And then it’s kind on you during the week to make sure you are not just going out having burgers and fries at dinner. It gets a little tough because you want to enjoy those things but you’ve got to train the next morning.
MMG: Are there any daily habits you employ, outside of the mobility and practice that you follow to a T to keep in peak shape on and off the field?
DAVIS: Big on staying hydrating, especially coming up on the summer here. I always got a water bottle with me. I got the Alkame water – I’m pretty big on that.
So I’m always drinking that, having one of those with me even if we are going through a team meeting or something like that.
For me, running up and down the field for 90 minutes, your legs tend to cramp up a bit towards the end so being really hydrated is important.
MMG: You mentioned briefly that during the off-season they are giving you workouts. What does the off-season look like?
DAVIS: It was about four days a week that they had us to do stuff. It’s a combination of anaerobic and aerobic exercises.
There’s always a good treadmill workout on there that they put us through. And then they have a little lifting packet. I try not to do the big heavy lifts. I just try to keep it light and maintain myself throughout the year.
But the treadmill stuff’s great and I think, especially this year, we came into camp a lot more fit than we have been.
MMG: I’m not sure if you are familiar with this CrossFit term of “goat”.
DAVIS: That’s the one you are bad at, right?
MMG: Exactly! So what’s your goat?
DAVIS: My goat would be the flexibility stuff and I don’t know why because I try to stretch and do the yoga stuff to make it better, but it’s just my body.
I’m not the most flexible person in the world so they’re always getting on me to keep stretching and do the mobility stuff to try and help out.