Courtesy of Steve Musco

Senior midfielder Nicky Downs ’19 of the Yale men’s soccer team became the first male soccer player from Yale to sign professionally within the U.S. since Ryan Raybould in 2005.

On Thursday, Downs signed with the United Soccer League’s Hartford Athletic in the Ray Tompkins House Varsity Room. Yale’s head coach Kylie Stannard and the head coach of Hartford Athletic, Jimmy Nielsen, joined Downs as he signed his first professional contract. The Connecticut native will now represent his home state as Hartford embarks on its inaugural season. This is the first time a Yale men’s soccer player has gone professional in 14 years and exemplifies the rise of the Yale men’s soccer program.

“To Hartford and Coach Nielsen, I am super grateful for the opportunity,” Downs said. “You know it means even a little bit more to me as a Connecticut kid. Getting to start my professional career in my home state is a pretty cool thing that not many people get to experience. I know it only gets harder from here, so I’m just excited for the challenge and ready to get going. I’m looking forward to it.”

Led by Nielson, Hartford Athletic is the newest team in the USL, the second division of American professional soccer. In the press conference, Nielsen noted that when he first took the head coaching position at Hartford in August, he was asked if he would take any local players. While it was a goal for Nielsen, it was not a necessity, and he insisted he would only take local players if they were good enough. Downs proved that he fit the bill.

In fact, Downs is the only local player on the squad so far. Nielsen — who played in England, Major League Soccer and his native Denmark — has already signed seven players from outside the US, including four from Denmark.

“[Downs is] not only intelligent in school but definitely on the field too,” Nielsen said. “I’m really, really looking forward to having [him] on the team here… I think that [he] has the tool set it takes to take it to the next level, and I am very excited to work with [him].”

At the conference, Downs was lauded for his numerous accomplishments, work ethic and character. Raised in Lakeville, CT, Downs studied and played soccer at the Hotchkiss School before taking his athletic and academic talents to Yale. During his time at Hotchkiss, Downs volunteered for the Right to Dream Academy, a soccer academy that educates and trains talented young players from West Africa. Downs himself took three trips to Ghana to help in the classroom and on the field.

At Yale, Downs continued to develop himself as a player, student and citizen. A three-year All-Ivy recipient, Downs was named to the first team this year. In his senior season, Downs started all 16 games. He finished his career with 65 total appearances for the Elis, posting nine goals, 15 assists and 33 points.

“I came in a different player than I am now and I grew a lot,” Downs said. “Without that kind of growth I don’t know if I’d be making this next step. My four years here have meant a lot to me and given me a lot in terms of making this jump.”

This year, Downs helped lead the team to their first winning season since 2011, and all four of Downs’ years have seen increasing total team wins. He has been named to several regional and local honor teams, including the United Soccer Coaches All-Northeast Region Third Team and the Google Cloud Academic All-District First Team.

In the classroom, Downs is an economics major with an impressive 3.8 grade-point average.

“Nicky has been the epitome of a student athlete here,” coach Stannard said. “It is pretty amazing what he has accomplished… But what is amazing is just really the sacrifice and mentality that he’s had throughout his entire time here, especially with the extra demands and rigors at a place like Yale…I’m just super excited to be able to follow him and want to officially congratulate Nicky. I’m really proud of him and happy to help him get to this next chapter.”

At the end of the press conference, Downs, Stannard and Nielsen all thanked Downs’ teammates for their support and role in shaping Downs as a player. In addition to praising Downs for his success, Stannard took the time to acknowledge his hopes for the soccer program in the future: a professional signing every year moving forward.

Downs will start training with the team in less than two weeks before the season opener on March 9.

Cate Sawkins | .