After taking his lumps with the rest of the newly-formed Hartford Athletic FC soccer team, Nicky Downs ’15 is enjoying a stellar second season of professional soccer.
The team, which plays in the USL Championship division, currently sits in second place in its division with a record of 7-1-3, tied in the loss column with current division leader Pittsburgh.
And Downs, a rangy midfielder who has logged 1,207 minutes of playing time in 23 total games played, currently leads the team with an 87.2% passing accuracy mark.
“It’s definitely a total privilege and the best post-graduate job I could have possibly imagined,” said Downs, who graduated from Yale in 2019 and immediately joined the team on a full-time basis after splitting time with the squad in the spring of his senior season.
Downs was enthusiastic about the growth of the club over its first two seasons. Last year was admittedly a steep learning curb for the team, as they finished 2019 with a win-tie-loss record of 8-5-21. But Downs recognized improvements even through the hard times.
“It speaks to how small the margins are in this league in general,” he said. “Towards the end of last year we were starting to put it together, to get some results. I still think we had a really good team but it took a while to figure things out.”
Now in 2020 the team seems to be on an upward trajectory, having lost to only two teams in the league (including twice to Pittsburgh). For Downs, having a year under his belt has given him some perspective on how to pace himself throughout the grind of a full pro season.
“The biggest adjustment was getting my body to a place where I could train every day for 9-10 months and not feel worn down,” he said. “Part of that is knowing how to treat your body in the off-season, taking the time off you need so you don’t burn yourself out.”
Downs also acknowledged that being a professional athlete means understanding that sometimes club decisions are made for business reasons. “You can have teammates one day that get shipped halfway across the country the next day. That doesn’t happen in college or any other level.”
As he grows into his professional career, Downs is focused on specific areas of his game that he feels he needs to improve the most. Right now, his focus is on improving his on-ball defense. “The side of my game I needed to work on was being a more physical defensive presence,” he said. “I’ve become a capable ball winner, but defending is still something I continue to work on.”
Downs added that he hoped also to improve his goal scoring, recognizing that his primary function as a midfielder was to link up the players on the field, but still wanting to be a scoring threat when possible.
Former teammates and coaches expressed great pride and little surprise at Downs’s success thus far. Said Toby Elmore, who coached Downs for his final three years at Hotchkiss: “Nicky was the most dedicated player I have ever seen. He trained tirelessly, was a student of the game in the way that few high school players are, and essentially served as a coach on the field during matches and practices.”
Current boys varsity assistant Mario Williams ’12, who played for one season with Downs, echoed this praise. “He always had a soccer ball at his feet no matter where I saw him on campus, and he would practice juggling, dribbling, and passing non-stop. His commitment to improvement was noteworthy and admirable,” said Williams.
He added that the success of Downs and other players like Francis Atuahene ’15, who is currently under contract with FC Dallas of the MLS league, speaks both to the talent that is attracted to Hotchkiss and the development that players get in their time here.
“Playing soccer at Hotchkiss can be a transformative and immensely rewarding experience,” said Williams. “Regardless of where an incoming player is from, Hotchkiss provides an institutional environment in which that player is assured of having access to the resources needed to become not only a better soccer player, but also a more well-rounded person.”
For Downs, some of that additional development was still tied back to the game he loves. For several years even before Hotchkiss, he traveled to the Right to Dream Academy in Ghana, which currently features several alumni on both the boys and girls varsity soccer teams.
During his visits. Downs had a chance to work with Right to Dream students in their classrooms, and then participate in training sessions with the boys teams. “I’m very lucky to have had those experiences,” said Downs.
Both Elmore and Williams agreed that for players who hope to join the professional ranks with Downs and Atuahene, a total commitment to the sport is essential. “There are absolutely no shortcuts,” said Williams. “You will need to consistently outwork those around you, put in very long hours on the training pitch, focus on your nutrition and sleep habits, and demonstrate superior mental resilience.”