Sean Davis — Pushing the Limits
On April 17 of 2015, when Sean Davis made his debut for the soccer organization that he grew up rooting for, the New York Red Bulls, it represented a culmination of more than a decade’s worth of hard work and preparation. Donning number 27, the same number that he wore as an adolescent on soccer fields in his hometown of Holmdel, New Jersey, and around the country, Davis finally achieved his dream of playing professionally for a Major League Soccer team. Now a regular fixture in the team’s starting lineup, Davis’s story is one of talent, sacrifice, and dedication.
And if you ask him, it was mostly the dedication that propelled him to this level. Even though he has experienced success at every level of soccer, winning team MVP as a high school freshman and two-time team captain in college for the Duke Blue Devils, and ascended through the ranks of the Red Bulls’ organization, he’s maintained a drive to push himself to get better at every turn.
“I’m not the most athletic,” Davis says during an interview at his apartment in Jersey City, which he shares with teammate Dan Metzger. “What has always worked for me is putting in more effort and work behind the scenes.”
It’s a drive instilled when, as a teenager, one of his coaches told him that if he wasn’t working toward his goal, someone else would be. And while Davis’ journey wasn’t without its share of bumps, including being benched earlier this season and not making the cut for the Under-17 World Cup team, his response to adversity has always been to try to grow from any setbacks.
That determination to improve seems to be part of Davis’ DNA, and transcends his athleticism on the field. When a teammate came to the Red Bulls from another country and speaking only Spanish, Davis taught himself Spanish in an effort to improve communication with other players. And when a potential lockout threatened part of the 2015 season, Davis became more interested in the business side of the sport, and is now a representative for the MLS Players Union.
During a conversation in the late summer, with the Red Bulls squarely in playoff contention, Davis shared the story of his journey from a hometown recreational soccer player to a member of the starting 11 for the local professional team, and a desire to be an ambassador for the game.
With the majority of his playing career still likely ahead of him, and an intense passion for the sport, there’s no telling where Davis’ career might take him. But one thing is for sure: he’s going to give it his best shot.
LIM: Congratulations on your success this season, Sean. How has it gone based on your expectations?
SD: I’m in a little bit of a unique situation. I spent two years on the bench trying to make the most of my opportunities when I did get to play. That took a lot of time, playing with our second-level team, with younger guys and developmental players. For the first year and half I was trying to stay as patient as possible and do as well as I could when I got the chance. For the first year everything was so new and it was a dream come true to play for a professional team, let alone your hometown team. We have a great group, a locker room full of honest guys. Getting paid to show up and play soccer, it was everything I imagined and more. My breakthrough, per se, was last year when our captain, Dax McCarty, was injured in late July. Throughout his time here, he was a fan favorite and someone I looked up to on the team. I was the starter until he came back. My first big game was against the LA Galaxy in Los Angeles. At the time, they had my idol, Steven Gerrard (a former player for England’s national team) on their team.
LIM: What was it like to play against him?
SD: It was one of the coolest moments of my career, playing against him. I remember I asked for his jersey about 25 minutes into the first half after I had settled into the game. He was super kind, and a great guy. He was exactly who I wanted him to be after watching his career – he was very humble. He said that one of my teammates had already asked him for his shirt. I ended up scoring my first MLS goal that game in LA, a great soccer city. That was a fun stretch for me because I was playing week in and week out.
LIM: Did you keep your starting role then?
SD: Well, in the offseason, they ended up trading McCarty. The fans were upset because they didn’t understand why they would trade such a big-time player. It was a little difficult for me because he was like a mentor for me, but at the same time it opened the door for me and another young player named Tyler Adams, who’s only 18. I came into the season assuming that I would be a starter and for the first five games I started we weren’t playing well, and they decided to go with a different look. That was difficult for me, but it was the choice that they made for the sake of the team. I was coming off the bench for much of the first half of the season. It was challenging, but I had to have a good attitude, strong mentality, and work extremely hard. Just before the halfway mark, our coach saw that things still weren’t working and decided to switch up the formation. He told me and three teammates that they needed to figure out a way for the four of us to get the field. We changed our formation and now we’re playing well in season play and in cup play. The rest of the season is going to be intense. Either way, it’s going to be an amazing experience.
LIM: You must have experienced a lot of emotions in just a couple of years, with filling in for a popular player, then being benched. How did you handle all that?
SD: The way that I describe it is, it’s the best roller coaster I’ve ever been on. It’s been demanding, it’s been challenging, but the way that I try to look at it, it was all necessary for me to grow as a player and as a person. I was really pushed outside of my comfort zone and it helped me grow into the player that I want to be. I just look at it as my developmental path. It was a humbling experience for sure. Not that I was cocky in any way, just that you really need to perform every day and nothing is just given in this profession. The whole experience helped put things in perspective and I feel that I’m a stronger and better player because of it.
LIM: I guess you can never expect something like that to happen.
SD: For a lot of American college soccer players, once you get to MLS, it’s the first time that you’re competing for playing time and having to prove yourself week in and week out. That brings the best out of you. I was able to start pretty much every single game of my life until MLS. This is a challenge, but as a player, that’s what you want. You want to be pushed and you want to grow as much as possible and be the best you can be. Right now, I feel this is the perfect place for me to be.
LIM: When did you start getting into soccer?
SD: When I was growing up I think I played every rec sport possible. There’s one picture I have where I’m sitting on my mom’s lap wearing my first jersey, which was a MetroStars jersey (the former name of the Red Bulls). That was a little foreshadowing, I guess. Soccer just seemed to be what I was naturally best at. I joined the local travel team, and I remember my first coaches, Coach Jay and Coach John, of the Holmdel Bulldogs. I played on that team with Dan Metzger, who is now my teammate and roommate. Those coaches played a large part in my becoming a professional soccer player. I don’t come from a big soccer family, and my parents don’t know everything about the sport. One of the best things I tell people about my parents is they let me do it just because I enjoyed it. They put no pressure on me at all and offer unconditional support. I’m really lucky because I know it could have been the complete opposite. Luckily, I had the right coaches every step of the way in my career, and it all started with the coaches of the Holmdel Bulldogs in second grade. Playing on SS White and other local fields with those teams, those are memories that I’ll never forget.
LIM: What was your soccer path like from there?
SD: I started to get really serious about soccer in middle school. The travel teams were branching out all over the country. I caught wind of the United States Under-17 program and I told my parents I wanted to do whatever possible to get into it. I would train all the time, even on my own in my basement. I would train with my cleats on the carpet, bang the ball against the walls, do whatever I could to improve. It became an obsession. Looking back, I don’t know how I did it, but I had the right people around me and supporting me.
It’s all crazy until it works, I guess. There was something called the Olympic Development program. Each state had a team, and you’d try out from there. Then they would select the top players for the regional team, then the regions would play each other. From that point I was selected for the Under-15 Boys National Team. I ended up at residency to compete and make the Under-17 National Team, which was a challenging time because I moved away from my family at 15, 16 years old.
I was in Florida at that age, training every single day. There was a setback: I wasn’t selected for U-17 World Cup qualifying. I was right in the cusp, one of two or three players that didn’t make that cut. They told me they wanted me to stick around and there was a strong chance that I would be selected for the U-17 World Cup in Nigeria. I worked extremely hard that summer but, unfortunately, I didn’t end up making that either. That was a tough moment, because I packed up my life, gave up my high school social life to move to Florida for something I always wanted. As a young kid, you think you know exactly how things are going to work out. It was a humbling moment, not making it, but it was important for me to realize I still had a long way to go as a player. When I came back, I was focused on school and at that point was when I joined Red Bulls Academy.
LIM: How were you able to manage those setbacks at a young age?
SD: You could see it affecting a kid my age, that I would say I’m done with this sport and think that people don’t value me. And to an extent, it did. You talk about important moments in your life and this was an important moment in mine. It knocked me down a few pegs, and I think I needed that. It opened my eyes and I kicked everything up into another gear. From there I joined the Red Bulls Academy. Luckily for me, I was able to stay focused, play with Red Bull, continue to improve and play with the developmental program.
LIM: And you were able to play D-I at Duke?
SD: Yes. UNC recruited me heavily. It’s a beautiful school, a very good school but I didn’t get the right feel on my visit there. Duke then called me shortly after my visit to UNC and wanted me to visit as well. I went with my mom, and I felt so welcomed there. I knew on my visit that it was right for me. I committed on my visit, and it was the best decision I made in my life. I couldn’t play high school soccer anymore because I had to focus on my grades and train with Red Bull. Luckily, I did well academically my senior year, Duke liked my SAT score and I was able to get in.
LIM: What did you major in there?
SD: I majored in Sociology with a Markets and Management certificate. I was an Academic All-American my senior year, a Lowe’s Senior Class Finalist, and graduated Cum Laude. That’s where I think I transformed into the person I am today. I was surrounded by classmates who were so driven academically, and I found myself in the library more than I ever thought I would be. It reiterated to me how important it was to surround yourself with the right people.
LIM: What about it transformed you?
SD: I’m not the smartest, just like I’m not the most athletic. I can run for days but I’m not super-athletic. What has always worked for me is putting in more effort and work behind the scenes. That really held true at Duke. There are so many incredible people there that each have their own paths, and it made me appreciate the hard work that everyone puts in to get where they’re going. Like, MLS starts in the winter. I had to take classes in the summer at Montclair because MLS didn’t align with the academic calendar. I would train with the summer league team after going to seven hours of class for three weeks in a row. I overloaded during the school semester so I could graduate early. Then, in December of 2014, I signed my first MLS contract with the Red Bulls. I trained with them under Mike Petke and Thierry Henry. Signing pro was so exciting for me.
LIM: I’m sure. You sacrificed and worked hard to get to that point.
SD: I missed out on senior spring in college. Duke basketball won the national championship that year and my friends were all down there celebrating having the best time, but so was I. I was doing what I’d always wanted to do, so that made it a lot easier. When you’re young, you say you want to be an astronaut or a professional athlete, and you’re a little naïve because you don’t realize how difficult it is and that it’s easier said than done. For me, looking back on my path, I was naïve to the point where I thought I always had a chance. Because of that, I committed myself to that dream and I worked hard every single day. I put in a lot of hours on my own.
LIM: And you mentioned that you’re not the most athletic. What are some of your limitations? How did you overcome them?
SD: I’m somewhat limited physically. I can’t run the fastest, I’m not the strongest guy. It was always going to take something unique for me to succeed. I’d like to think that I’m a technical player, and coachable. I’ve had a true willingness to learn, and that’s helped. When you’re around great people, you need to be able to listen and learn. That’s how it’s worked out for me.
LIM: Did any of your coaches when you were younger give you any advice?
SD: Coach Williams, while at New Jersey Soccer Academy and Match Fit, and now a coach at Soccer Sense, always explained to me that there are millions of players around the country who want to be professional soccer players. So, what’s stopping them? Why are you going to make it instead of them?
It’s going to take an extraordinary amount of effort for you to do that. And if you’re not training, someone else out there is improving and getting better than you. That was always in the back of my head. That’s what got me to where I am. I knew that if I wasn’t working, someone else was. And when the day came, they would reach their dream and I wouldn’t. That fear about not realizing the dream that you’ve been attached to your whole life was extremely motivating. I look at my career now and don’t want to look back with regret. I still have such a long way to go. These will be memorable years of my life and I need to maximize my time here. Eventually I’m going to have a career to look back on, and I want to be proud of what I’ve done.
LIM: How long is your contract for, if you can say?
SD: I can’t really say. But I’m going into my third season.
LIM: What’s the support been like from the local community?
SD: My parents are season ticket holders. I lived in my friend’s basement for a little while up north, and every day before a home game I’d go home to my parent’s house, it became a routine. I slept in the bedroom that I’ve slept in my whole life. My mom would cook for me, the same meal I’ve had before games my whole life. I still do that now, but eventually that’s going to have to change because I am an adult. For me, it’s a good way to stay focused and clear my mind. They’re so supportive. Being able to play and share my success, and my failures, with them as a player on a hometown team is incredible. They have gone through everything with me my whole life. I don’t want that to change. My brother Tim is a Marketing major at the University of Tampa, and he had internship with Red Bulls. When we played at Yankee Stadium against New York City FC, he was in the locker room with us before the game and I remember Jesse (Red Bull coach) saying to me, “This is a really cool moment for you guys, isn’t it?” And he was right. It’s crazy how time flies. When he was a little kid I’d throw him in goal in the basement and shoot on him. Now he’s sharing these moments with me and it’s really special. Later, after we played Orlando City, it was his last game before heading back to school, and I was able to score and have an assist that game. He interviewed me after the game. At first, he was professional, but then he asked about Mom’s chicken cutlets, which is what she makes before every game, and some fans now chant that at the games. He also asked me about our dog Dobby (named after the Harry Potter character). It was cool to share that time with him.
LIM: As a young man working in his dream job close to New York City, what do you like to do in your free time?
SD: When I left Duke, I had a gap in my life. I was home after training around 2 or 3 in the afternoon, and I had all this free time that I never had before. I started reading a lot, about everything. I got into U.S. history for a while, as well as biographies in general. And my friend and teammate now came here in the summer of 2015, his name is Gonzalo Veron, from Argentina. He didn’t speak a word of English. I looked around the locker room and saw all these guys that were bilingual, from France and Germany, and could speak all these languages, and I was envious of that. I ended up buying this program called Fluenz® Spanish, and for about six to eight months I just learned Spanish every single day. Now I’m at an intermediate level, and it’s been fun. We’ve gone to El Salvador and Nicaragua to play games and I’ve been able to use my broken Spanish. It’s helped me a lot. I’m also a team player rep for the Players Union in MLS. That’s selected by the team, and I was selected after my rookie year because I was interested in it and I had an ability to connect the younger and older guys. I had a good relationship with a lot of them, so that was my role.
LIM: Is that common for such a young player to be a union rep?
SD: They are mostly guys that have a few years of experience in the league.
LIM: What made you interested in the business end of the sport?
SD: At Duke, I wrote a paper about the expansion of the MLS, and how it’s been able to succeed instead of the NASL, which folded. Ever since then I’ve been interested in the league and how it’s been able to transform and grow into what it is today. I remember when there was no union. Now there’s a union fighting for negotiations for a Collective Bargaining Agreement. My first pre-season, there was a potential lockout, and so I was interested right away. The different rights that players have earned over the years, how well-respected the league is around the world, is something that interested me in becoming a player rep.
LIM: Some US soccer players do go on to play in Europe, even for a short while. Is that something you’ve ever considered?
SD: To be honest, it’s a stretch for me. To play in the English Premier League you have to play for the US National Team and have a certain number of games played for them. A dream of mine would be to play for the National Team. I still have a ways to go, but I’m continuing to push myself in the right direction. To play in Europe would be great, but it would have to be the right situation. I’m very happy at the Red Bulls. It’s a dream come true to play for my hometown team. But one day, it would be a great experience to play in Europe because soccer is a religion there. I watch it on TV all the time, and that’s the pinnacle of the sport. But the MLS is an amazing league and getting better day by day.
LIM: How do you become a member of the national team?
SD: It’s hand-selected by the coach. They watch American players week in and week out. There’s always someone watching you in this sport, scouts from Europe and the US are at games all the time.
LIM: What does it mean to you that you get to put on that jersey of the team you grew up watching?
SD: It’s surreal every single time. I’ve been connected and invested in the club for so long. They’ve created a great culture here at the Red Bulls. They’ve done a good job of being a family-like environment, and they preach that. I try not to take it for granted, that I’m playing for my hometown team, especially for one that’s run as well as this club. Every time I put on that jersey I feel that responsibility to leave everything on the field, or what we say at the club: ‘Empty the tank. Do it for the team,’ we say, ‘all in every day.’ That’s the goal every time.
LIM: Does your jersey number have any significance?
SD: It was a number that was available, but it was also a number I used growing up: 27. That was the number I grew up playing with.
LIM: Do you have a long-term goal of working in the business end of soccer?
SD: One thing I enjoy doing now is community outreach, like doing different appearances, connecting with fans, meeting them in different towns and cities. I go to different camps, some that I grew up going to myself, and speak at those camps to hopefully inspire players. I really enjoy that, because I was once in those shoes. I’m still figuring out a lot. I am obsessed with soccer and I could see myself working in a role like coaching, or a front office role or helping the league grow. It’s a difficult question for me right now. With time that answer will come to me. I’m going to keep my options open and I’d like to think I’m open-minded in that sense. Right now I’m doing something I love, and I’d love to be able to say that after my soccer career as well.
Favorite Movie: Fight Club
Favorite Musician: Drake
Favorite Restaurant: Undici in Rumson, NJ
Pet Peeve: Messiness
Dine With: Soccer great Steven Gerrard, Duke’s Coach K, Game of Thrones’ Jon Snow