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SSFC Spotlight: Jake Davis changes positions and becomes starter

The Sporting Kansas City right fullback has become a regular.

MLS: MLS Cup Western Conference First Round-Game 2-St. Louis CITY SC at Sporting Kansas City Peter Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

For players looking for a jumpstart, a positional change can be an impossible challenge or a new lease on life that leads to a dramatic shift in the trajectory of a career. A familiar but new spot in the formation has the potential to lead to more minutes and the better utilization of abilities. Jake Davis has been enjoying a career season since switching his primary role from center midfielder to right fullback. The 21-year-old Sporting Kansas City defender is one of the top minute-earners in Major League Soccer among United States youth internationals and excelling in multiple statistical categories.

Born and raised in the Detroit suburb of Rochester, Michigan, Davis played for Vardar Soccer Club before joining the Sporting Kansas City academy over the Portland Timbers in 2017, living with a host family as a part of the club’s residency program. Becoming a key player for the U-17 and U-19 squads, United Scout Coaches named him an All-American after scoring eight goals in 48 Development Academy appearances. Two years later, he was promoted to the reserves in the USL Championship, featuring in five matches and contributing two assists. The following season, now on a professional contract, the center midfielder was used in all 15 fixtures with the second team. In the early days, coaches described him as having difficulty “controlling his emotions,” while the player himself confessed to operating off of raw instinct and not “playing soccer the smart way.”

Living away from home presented several lifestyle challenges that ultimately helped him to reach a new level. “I had a lot of thoughts about ‘Do I want to leave my family and friends?’” said Davis. “I feel comfortable here. My parents and my [grandmother] knew that moving here and taking the next step and being uncomfortable in a new place would help me push myself to achieve my goal… I had a really deep conversation with my [grandmother] about it. She would say things like ‘What if you don’t do it, would you regret it?’”

In 2021, Davis played in 26 USL Championship matches, registering two goals and six assists. In August of that year, Sporting Kansas City signed the “hardworking, versatile competitor” to a Homegrown player contract. He made his first-team debut in a 4-0 win over Minnesota United, featuring for one minute, but the rest of his time was spent glued to the bench in the match-day lineup.

During the following season, Davis split between the first-team and reserve levels. He made 13 appearances in MLS Next Pro, scoring two goals. His four matches with the MLS squad totaled fewer than 90 minutes, but a change was on the horizon.

After starting this ongoing season with the reserves, Davis was thrust into the starting lineup in April. Instead of his more familiar center midfielder, he has been deployed at right fullback and held the position for 34 matches, earning Team of the Matchday honors for Matchday 34. Continuing his strong run of form, the defender went the full 90 in all three playoff matches as Sporting Kansas City advanced to the Eastern Conference semifinal round. He credits his success with working hard during the preseason by committing to a consistent diet and training regimen which put him in a position to succeed.

“I want to prove myself every day,” Davis told The Kansas City Star. “I want to prove that I’m a good player, not just a good right back, and that if they need me in a different position, I can help... Right now, I’ve been playing right back, and I need to focus on the thing I need to do at right back. And that’s all I can do: get better every day at the things I need to do in the game.”

At the international level, Davis was a member of the United States program at the U-17 level. He competed at the Nike International Friendlies in 2019, which included Turkey, the Netherlands, and the eventual champion U-16 team. His side, composed of players who were outside of the U-17 World Cup roster, finished with a 1-1-1 record.

Originally a center and holding midfielder, Davis has fully committed to right fullback, with the expected growing pains of overzealously overcommitting in challenges. He is a high-volume, accurate passer who registers multiple interceptions and tackles per game, excelling at taking down opposing dribblers. Teammates praise his feistiness and intensity, quickly recovering from mistakes and “executing the fundamentals confidently.” Manager Peter Vermes notes that the defender “competes for everything” and “doesn’t shy away from physical challenges.”

“I’m a pretty aggressive player,” Davis shared with the Kansas City Soccer Journal. “In the past when I’ve played midfield [I haven’t] been afraid to get into a tackle and stick it to somebody. Playing in the defense, I’m not so worried about breaking up plays and slide tackling and being rough. It’s important to be aggressive in certain moments, but I’ve tried to stay focused on protecting the goal, staying connected with the back line... You have to be switched on for every roll of the ball, for 90 minutes, and not get comfortable back there. You are the last line, especially on the ball; you’re the last guy back there. You have to stay focused and make the right decisions.”

Davis is at the beginning of his career and only just now receiving consistent first-team minutes. He should exponentially improve with experience while continuing to learn to operate in the fullback position, having already adapted well and becoming an under-the-radar talent in MLS. At 21 years old, the defender has time to return to the national team set-up and perhaps find his way into contention for next summer’s USMNT Olympics roster.