From sand fields in Jamaica, through Florida, England, Akron, Yankee Stadium and Colorado, Jonathan Lewis always dreamed in red, white and blue
Photographs by Chad Griffith
Styling by Melina Kemph
Shirt, Zara. Pants, Rhude. Shoes, Vans.
On manicured grass fields across the United States of suburbia, you will find seven-year-olds playing travel team soccer and taking private lessons in the hopes of playing for the U.S. national team someday. Jonathan Lewis of the Colorado Rapids has experienced the joy of representing the U.S. in international play, most recently at this summer’s Gold Cup. But his road to the red, white and blue took a very different path.
“When you talk about how American soccer is evolving and how it’s getting better, and why these countries like Brazil and Columbia are so good, it’s because they grew up playing on the street,” Lewis says. “When I was growing up in Jamaica, you could just go outside and play. They would have these little goals made of wood and we could play in the middle of the road, with cars driving by. It was more of a grassroots thing. It was the love of the game. You walk across the street, and soccer is played in the parks, and you just go play barefoot in the sand, and it’s fun like that. You can go to the park and play basketball here. But that’s not how it is for soccer in America. In Jamaica, everywhere you go, you can find a place to play soccer.”
Growing up, soccer was part of the daily conversation for Lewis. His father is from Jamaica, where the family lived when Lewis was a young boy. His mom is from England, but lived a great deal of her life in Trinidad. Eventually, the family settled in Plantation, Florida, west of Fort Lauderdale.
Prior to the move to Florida, Lewis’ soccer dream began to take hold. “My dad, growing up in Jamaica, all he knew was soccer,” Lewis says. “My mom’s side of the family, every single person on that side is all soccer—her, her mother, my grandma, my uncle, everyone. So we’d go to visit Jamaica, go to Trinidad, and that’s all they ever talked about is soccer. I just had this dream when I was younger. Me and my uncle especially. What if I could become a professional soccer player?”
Jacket, Obey. T-shirt, J.Crew.
In Jamaica, Lewis played with countless kids who all dreamed of playing professional soccer, but didn’t have the opportunities available to them. When Lewis’ family moved to Florida when he was 12, he began to see his potential path forming. “At first, I was thinking more along the lines of playing in college,” Lewis says. “But then during my club years, when I was 15 years old, I went away to an ODP (Olympic Development Program) camp, and I did really well there. So now, I was playing with a bunch of guys in America who were playing for the under-14 and under-15 youth national team. And I was able to compete with these guys, and sometimes do better. So that’s when I first felt that I could follow this dream. I can go to college, maybe play in MLS, and eventually play in Europe.”
When Lewis turned 16, it seemed possible that he might be able to skip a few steps and head straight to Europe when he was offered a contract by Middlesborough. “My mom and dad wanted me to finish high school before going,” Lewis says. “So I trained there for the summer and pre-season, and then came back to finish my senior year of high school. When I was done, I went to Bradford City to try to sign a contract.”
When Lewis returned to England after completing high school, the experience wasn’t what he thought it would be. “When I went to Bradford City, I was not with the first team,” he says. “I was 18 years old, by myself. living on my own in this country that I don’t really know much about. It was difficult. That’s one of the reasons why I came back home to go to college. But I also felt like it was the right path for me to come back to start my career in America, because I think the way soccer is moving now, with this generation of younger talent coming through, I felt my development would be taken care of a little bit better here than by being in England. I didn’t think I was ready yet.”
When Lewis returned from England, he rejoined his academy team and began to think about colleges. “I was playing in an academy showcase, and Jared Embick (head coach of Akron) said, ‘Who the heck is this kid?’ My mom really wanted me to get my degree, but I wanted to fastest route to get to professional soccer. I was looking at Maryland, Akron, Virginia. After talking with Jared and his coached, I felt like they had a set plan. If I was talented enough to go to MLS, they were going to help me as much as they could. And I was going to have the chance to play right away.”
Lewis played for Akron for one season before entering the MLS draft. In January 2017, he was drafted by NYCFC, and by March of that year, he was getting into games with the first team. And though that was only two years ago, Lewis has already seen a giant shift in how American teenagers are finding their way to MLS.
“I think college played a role in helping me develop,” Lewis says. “But I also think that the way forward now is younger players, 15 and 16 years old going through the academy, signing pro contracts at that age, and training with the first teams. Being able to play with seasoned pros at 16 years old is going to get you a lot better. You’re still getting the academy gains, but you’re getting your learning from the seasoned pros when you’re training with the first team. James Sands at NYCFC is a good example. He didn’t go to college. He could play in any college in the country. But week in and week out, at 16 years old, he was getting that training with grown men, and he developed at a quicker rate. A lot of times in college, you have freshmen that come in and they’re already the best player, so I think it can play a role. But I think that it’s starting to fade away, and for us as a country, if we want to be successful in moving forward with the next World Cup and the World Cup after that, our players have to get into professional environments at 15 and 16 years old, so they’re training with the best of the best in the country.”
For Lewis, the next stage of his dream is to help the U.S. men’s national team to win their first World Cup. “Some kids dream of playing in the Premier League or wanting to be like Ronaldo,” he says. “But I’ve always said that I wanted to play for the national team. I want to try to win a World Cup with the U.S. Winning a World Cup with the national team would make my career.”
Despite dreaming of the moment, Lewis couldn’t believe it when the U.S. men’s team call up actually came. “Getting my first call up, I just sat there in shock,” he says. “I had to call my agent and ask, ‘Is this a joke?’ And he just started laughing. I started crying. Even though it was a January camp, it’s an opportunity to wear the crest. It means more than just playing for the national team. We’re representing all of the soccer fans in America that not only love the game, but want to see the U.S. make the next step. We’re not just playing for ourselves or playing for the country, we’re playing to change the way that the world views American soccer. It was more than an honor. Not just playing for a team, but trying to change a culture. It’s something special, and it’s something that I look forward to. I hope to continue to be with the national team; it’s going to be fun.”
After helping the U.S men’s team reach the Gold Cup final, Lewis returned to his new MLS team, the Colorado Rapids. Lewis was looking to play more, an opportunity he wasn’t receiving under NYCFC coach Dome Torrent. Rapids coach Conor Casey welcomed Lewis with open arms. When the teams played each other in July, you could see why.
On a long ball played down the left side early in the game, Lewis streaked past the NYCFC back line, taking the ball down the touch line and laying a perfect cross in to 16-year-old defender Sebastian Anderson for Anderson’s first ever MLS goal. “He’s a smart player, and a guy we know will get the ball and be effective,” Casey said of Lewis to the Denver Post.
Lewis hopes that the move to Colorado will finally give him the opportunity to grow into the type of player he wants to be to reach his ultimate dream. “This new generation coming up, that’s the goal that we’ve set,” he says. “We set a bar that is high that we know we can reach. We want to do things that American soccer players have never done. We want to try to win some of these times that we weren’t able to win in the past. So we want to make a difference. And I think it’s going to start with the Olympics. It’s our age, under-23 so that is going to set a tone for the next World Cup that to show that America’s here and we’re not going to just lay down for anybody.”