Chris Downs (sliding) and the EMU men's soccer team open the 2014 season on Friday, Aug. 29, at 2:30 p.m., at Mary Washington.

Royals, Downs look to build on last year with season-opener Friday

His full name is Christopher João Downs Villegas, but to members of the Eastern Mennonite University men’s soccer team, he’s simply known as Chris.

And to competitors around the Old Dominion Athletic Conference, João “Chris” Downs is regarded as one of the top defenders in the league.

The Costa Rican-born Old Dominion University transfer, who joined EMU following a freshman campaign with the Monarchs that was completely wiped out when he tore the ACL in his right knee, earned first-team all-league honors last year and will begin his senior season when the Royals visit Mary Washington in Fredericksburg on Friday.

“There are a couple things that Chris does really, really well: He’s very athletic – he’s a Division I athlete. He’s strong,” longtime Royals coach Roger Mast said. “I think his speed may have been affected a little bit from his ACL injury, but physically, he’s strong. … He’s very composed on the ball. Even under pressure, you never see him panic.”

Pronounced JAY-ow, João — a Portuguese surname – is what the 6-foot-2, 190-pound Downs said he prefers to go by. But the difficult spelling and pronunciation of the name led him to adopt “Chris” in Harrisonburg for the sake of simplicity.

Downs was born in rural Limón, Costa Rica, and his father, Cristobal, who now works as a port agent in the Central American country, has raised cattle for both dairy and meat products as a hobby since Chris was a boy.

In fact, Chris Downs said his father sold “a couple” of his livestock to pay for his son’s plane ticket to the United States when he left for ODU prior to the 2011 season.

That background, Mast said, made Downs’ transition to the beach life in Norfolk – his first time being in the United States – immensely more challenging.

“I wouldn’t say growing up in Costa Rica was as hard for me as other kids because I had both parents that worked and provided for me all the time,” Downs said. “I can guarantee you that I was one of the kids playing in the streets that had shoes because my dad used to be like, ‘I don’t want you messing up your feet. You’re going to wear shoes, no matter if they cheap shoes or whatever. Whenever you need shoes, we have to buy you shoes.’”

Downs said he ended up with the Royals after his one-year scholarship at ODU was not renewed following his ACL injury. EMU turned out to be the one and only program Downs visited after leaving ODU, too, and Mast credited that to the down-to-earth atmosphere in Harrisonburg and its surrounding rural areas.

Now at age 24, Downs – who admits his knee still gives him problems from time to time – is ready to play his final competitive season of soccer before hoping to parlay his eventual liberal arts degree into a sports management career.

“Since I was like a 1-year-old, I can remember being obsessed with the game,” Downs said. “And for me, to keep playing, it’s just the passion. No matter how hurt I am, I’ll just try to recover and keep playing.”

Eastern Mennonite, picked to finish ninth this fall in the 12-team ODAC, was 5-13 a year ago and is entering its 24th season under Mast. During that time, Mast said he’s had “at least” 20 foreign-born players compete at his program.

Mast added another international athlete prior to this season in sophomore attacker Juan Luna, a Mexican-born former kicker on the Stonewall Jackson High School and James Madison football teams.

Luna and Downs, who along with student assistant Juan Flores are the only Spanish-first speakers in EMU’s program, often find themselves battling head-to-head in practice.

“He’s very physical, very vocal,” Luna said of Downs. “I’d say he’s the general of his troops – he definitely knows how to rally everybody up. … His timing is just so precise, and that’s something that really, really helps him.”

Courtesy of the Daily News Record, Aug. 28, 2014