This edition of 20 Questions is brought to you by our partners at New England Airfoil Products (NEAP).
Welcome back to 20 Questions: the series where we help you better get to know the players on this year's squad. For previous interviews in this series, we went behind the scenes with Conor McGlynn, Arthur Rogers, Danny Barrera, Mads Jørgensen, Alex Davey, Noah Paravicini, Aiden Mesias, Mac Steeves, Kevin Politz, Gabriel Torres, Cheno, Harry Swartz and Alex Dixon. This week, we caught up with Nicky Downs, the Connecticut native and 2019 Yale graduate who gets set to start his second season in Green and Blue. Enjoy!
1) Now that we finally have an official return date, what's the attitude like in practice?
ND: I’d say increasingly positive. Everyone's just itching to get into full contact training and then to start playing games. Everyone's super excited that there will be a season and we'll be playing sooner than later, so it's definitely been positive energy.
2) What's been the biggest challenge since returning from quarantine?
ND: Trying to get everyone back on the same page. When we first started practicing we were going in shifts and different schedules and if you weren't training at the same time as certain guys, you weren't really overlapping with them at all. It was a weird way to exist as a team because you were only seeing a handful of guys at a time so I think getting back and having everyone be on the same page as a cohesive unit and interacting with each other, while also maintaining the right social distancing protocols, is important. That slow integration has been tough because obviously your first instinct is to give a handshake and a hug to your teammates and obviously it's a little different so we're just trying to get everyone back on the same page, but doing it the right way.
3) This is kind of a second preseason in a way for you guys. How do you think that will help your ability to gel as a unit?
ND: I think this group had gotten to a pretty good point at the beginning of March right when we were ready to kick off this season, and I've said this a couple of times, but it's a super hungry group and really hard working and I think that bodes well. Of course having the extra time through the quarantine where (the coaching staff) kept us engaged through video analysis and we were in constant contact with them and then obviously since we've been back having this extra time to get ready for the season, I think it will be a group that from the get go has a pretty clear identity and knows how we want to play and what we want to do and it'll be a hard working group if nothing else. I think the fans will see that and they'll appreciate the work that the guys have put in and obviously we're just excited to kind of get out there and try and earn our stripes.
4) What is your favorite memory in soccer?
ND: Probably my home debut at Rentschler last year, which was also the club's home opener, where we had almost 12,000 fans. Being on the pitch that day, it was a pretty surreal feeling before kickoff, looking up and the whole lower bowl was pretty much packed. For me, being from Connecticut, I had a bunch of family and friends and my former coach from college all came up. So for me to be able to play in front of a lot of my folks made it an extra special evening. Obviously, we would have liked to win but to get our first point and get on the board in the USL was exciting. I’ll never forget the atmosphere that night. It was definitely my most cherished memory on the field.
5) What were your emotions leading up to that game?
ND: Just nervous excitement. That week was a crazy week for me actually because I just finished classes the week before and the day of our home opener I had submitted my final project as a college student. So I remember that week I was kind of grinding away, I'd go to training and then I'd come back from training and have to work on this project and then I finished and I was getting ready to play the home opener. So it was kind of a whirlwind of different chapters of my life ending and then another one beginning and it all felt pretty surreal. It was a super fun and exciting week and to cap it off in that fashion was pretty awesome.
6) You were still in school when our season started last year and you graduated in the middle of the season. What was it like being a student and a pro soccer player simultaneously?
ND: It was weird honestly. It was like existing in two separate realities. On the weekend we'd be flying to Atlanta or Charleston and we'd have a game. We played in Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis in front of around 20,000 fans on a Saturday night and then the next day I'd be back in the dining hall with my college friends, ready to go to class on Monday. It was like I was going back and forth between these two totally separate worlds and obviously it was a whirlwind when it was happening and kept me super busy, but everyone was super supportive on both ends and made it as seamless as possible for me.
7) What is your favorite New Haven pizza spot?
ND: I’m definitely partial to Sally's. Obviously I love them all and have had them all many times, but I definitely put Sally's at the top of the dog pile. It's become a little tradition with Harry (Swartz) and I. He's a Pepe’s guy, but I’m definitely a Sally’s guy. Right when we got back for the restart of training, Harry and I got a small pizza from each place, to do a side by side taste test to really get a clear sense of what we like the best. That only affirmed my previous belief that Sally's was the best.
8) I'm a little confused because if I'm not mistaken, you're one of a handful of players on the team who switched to either a vegetarian or a vegan diet. Explain to me how that works.
ND: I've never said I'm a vegan. I generally try and eat “vegan stuff”, but pizza has always been one of the things that I've never compromised on. I won't have much dairy otherwise but, yeah, I don't have any second thoughts on pizza. Generally, I'm a pretty healthy eater besides the pizza that I will indulge in once in a while.
9) How long have you eaten this way?
ND: For about a year and a half now, but prior to that I was just eating fish. I stopped eating red meat for a couple of years, and then I was just eating chicken and fish and then just eating fish really, and then I decided I'll try just not eating any meat or fish, and I've kind of stuck with that. It was around preseason last year when I stopped eating meat and fish altogether.
10) What athletes did you look up to growing up?
ND: I grew up in Connecticut which is kind of in the weird "No Man's Land" between Boston and New York, so you can kind of choose which teams you want to root for. I was a Boston sports fan, mostly the Patriots, which obviously makes me a big Tom Brady guy. From a soccer perspective, I've always been a big Barcelona fan and got to see them play in 2009, which was the first year Pep Guardiola was the coach. It was the year they won everything, they beat Manchester United in Rome in the Champions League final. I was with my family, we went on a spring break trip to Barcelona and got to see them play at Camp Nou. I always looked up to specifically the midfielders on that team, so Busquets, Xavi, and Iniesta. They were always my references as a soccer player, but then was a Boston sports fan otherwise, so I kind of drew from a diverse pool of athletes.
11) What is your favorite sport besides soccer?
ND: Well, I ran track in high school and I've always actually really enjoyed watching track in the Olympics and the World Championships. My second favorite sport to watch is football because I love the Patriots, but from a playing perspective, track is the only sport I played at a pretty competitive level through high school.
12) What events did you compete in?
ND: I ran the 400 and the four by four. Once in a while I’d do some shorter stuff, but in terms of my main event, it was definitely the 400 and then the four by four relay team.
13) How has your mentality changed from year one to year two as a professional?
ND: So much of year one is getting adjusted to the new environment, the new level and acquainting yourself with the speed of play, and also figuring out how the whole ecosystem functions. It's a very different feel than college soccer because it's obviously a business at the end of the day which makes it different than playing for your school. Coming into this year was more about being able to put all my energy into this, as I was free the second half of last season but had school at the beginning. Now, it's been about trying to find your role on the team and do whatever you can to help in the best way possible. Obviously, the older you get, the more that involves trying to be a leader on and off the field within the group and doing whatever you can to help the team.
14) What's something that was really difficult as a rookie that's become easier?
ND: Dealing with the load of a long season. In college you're used to playing for three and a half months and then being done whereas here we're playing in a 9-10 month season. Getting your body used to that physical load for sure, but also being able to deal with the pressure of playing in front of opposing fans and getting heckled and dealing with having a bad game. You have to try to keep an even keeled outlook on things. In your first year it's an emotional experience. The highs feel super high and the lows feel super low. The more you're in it, the more you can control and regulate those feelings and keep yourself at a good, even keeled place.
15) Did you have a “Welcome to pro soccer” moment as a rookie last season?
ND: Yes, certainly. When we played Memphis on the road in the regular season, we had some injuries and we reshuffled the deck a little bit and I had been asked to play right back, which obviously isn't my preferred position and so I was a little unfamiliar. We went down two goals in the first 15 minutes, both goals coming up on my side. We ended up getting back into the game and made it two to one but ended up losing the game. But that first half was like, whoa, wake up. Welcome to the next level, buddy. Of course, it's all about learning to deal with those sort of setbacks and picking yourself up, definitely a learning experience.
16) Are you a dog person or a cat person?
ND: I like both, but grew up actually with cats. I think cats get a bad rap, because people think they're creepy or antisocial or some combination of those two, but if you have nice cats and I was lucky enough to grow up with some awesome pretty friendly cats, it might be different. So I guess, ultimately, I'm a cat guy but nothing against dogs.
17) What would Nicky Downs be if he wasn't a professional soccer player?
ND: Probably would be going back to do more school, at some point. My parents are both in education, so I've always been encouraged to do as much school as I want to. I think after I'm done playing, probably Graduate School of some sort, will be in my future.
18) I know you were an Econ major. Would you look to get an MBA?
ND: I don't know MBA, law school potentially, that's something that I've always been interested in. But I honestly have no idea. Maybe when I'm done playing, my head will be in a totally different place. I don't want to be so old and going back to school, but my thinking right now is probably a little bit more school at some point.
19) You and your dad have been to Ghana multiple times as part of the Right to Dream program. Can you tell us a little bit about your experience?
ND: Yes, so I grew up at a boarding school called Hotchkiss up in Lakeville, Connecticut, and both my parents worked there. My dad was the soccer coach and my mom taught, and still teaches math there. My dad had initially been in contact with the guy who runs Right to Dream way back in the day and, eventually, was able to start bringing boys from the program over to Hotchkiss. That program has totally expanded and now they're at schools all over the northeast and they have a girls program. It was a super cool experience for me because I grew up around all my dad's Hotchkiss teams as a little kid, and he started getting all these awesome players. My dad had always had pretty international teams and had a lot of Jamaican guys before the Right to Dream connection. The Right to Dream guys started coming and then a couple summers, we would go over and visit Right to Dream. I was fortunate enough to train with their academy and get to know all the guys over there. It’s a super cool organization that has helped and continues to provide really cool opportunities for a lot of talented boys and girls. That was a very special part of my childhood.
20) What advice do you have for younger players who are looking to start their professional careers?
ND: If you really want something you have to be willing to chase it and sacrifice things for it. I think oftentimes that means going the extra mile or doing the extra work that you know your teammates might not be doing in the offseason, to get you a step ahead. I think the other part of that is loving the game and being passionate about it, because if you're not and you don't enjoy what you're doing, it's probably going to be hard to to push yourself to work as hard as you need to to reach the level you aspire to.