Jonathan Lewis wants NYCFC to know he’s ready to play
This isn’t how Jonathan Lewis expected his soccer career to start.
When New York City FC shelled out $250,000 to trade up and draft him in 2017, it was an ambitious move that looked to solidify the team’s attacking future. A raw and electric winger, Lewis was considered a building block of the future, the next in line when Jack Harrison departed, and American, one of their own.
But two years at NYCFC haven’t worked the way he envisioned. Lewis, now 21, has played just 561 regular-season minutes in The Bronx. While he was called into his first United States men’s national team camp this month, he has to start playing for NYCFC if he wants to potentially get more chances.
“I need to start playing consistently,” Lewis told The Post in December from Florida. “I definitely need to get some minutes to improve on some other things because that’s just the step forward I need to take. I just need to start playing consistently.”
Lewis isn’t demanding a trade — he’s happy at NYCFC despite not playing — but he feels he can show more than he has during his brief cameo appearances.
When Lewis plays, usually late in games, he can be lively, though often erratic. He finds ways to get behind the defense and position himself in scoring opportunities. His chaos-making ability has made him a fan favorite, despite never solidifying a real role with coach Domenec Torrent or predecessor Patrick Vieira.
Lewis has three goals and four assists across 25 games in his first two seasons. He feels he’s developed by bounds through training and in-game experience, which is why he was disappointed by not solidifying a spot in his sophomore season.
When Torrent took over in June, Lewis saw an extended early run as a substitute but ended with just 14 appearances (zero starts) with one goal in 219 minutes. Torrent said he preferred experienced wingers during NYCFC’s late-season struggles and questioned Lewis’ defensive abilities when asked why he wasn’t an option.
“When I’ve been thrown into games [at NYCFC], it’s been when the game is disorganized,” said Lewis. “It’s the end of the game and so it’s kind of just like, ‘Go on and try to get a goal.’ There are no more tactics.”
When Lewis fell out of favor with Torrent, he sought out a loan with USL champions Louisville City FC and linked up with former coach John Hackworth, who had coached him multiple times in the US youth national team system. Hackworth told The Post he was honest to Lewis regarding his loan: Either you perform on both sides of the ball, or you won’t see the field at all.
“He was really important for us at a critical time,” Hackworth said.
Lewis was disappointed not to score, but he grabbed an assist in 247 minutes for Louisville City. Hackworth explained he was “more than satisfied” with what Lewis provided defensively and thought Lewis’ mentality and effort were always there during games and training.
But Hackworth also said he wants to see Lewis become smarter when he’s on the attack.
“Every time he got the ball, I wanted to see him attack,” Hackworth said. “I wanted him specifically to read what the defense was giving him, whether it was one defender or a group of defenders or the goalie. Attacking players sometimes have their go-to move, and he has to develop a little bit more problem-solving in his game in case they take away the inside, he’s comfortable turning the corner. I absolutely encouraged him to do that.
“In particular, I encouraged him to be comfortable to get in a good serve. I think so many young players — I’ll say this as a broad statement — Jonathan is guilty of this, they cut back inside. It takes away the space and opportunities not only for themselves but for their teammates. When they are able to deliver a cross from deeper in the field, this is a new philosophy that opens up new options. It opens up options for Jonathan if he does that. If he doesn’t become predictable to a defense, it’s going to be a huge advantage for him.
“If he can serve a ball, there are different types of service, but if he can deliver a ball into the goal area, his game is going to significantly develop.”
This could be Lewis’ last season at NYCFC with his contract expiring afterward.
He plans on fighting for a starting spot this offseason and received a boost when US national team coach Gregg Berhalter surprisingly named him to his first January camp. It was a call-up based on his potential and just the type of news Lewis was hoping for since he hopes to represent the US Under-23 team at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. Lewis told the “Soccer in the City” podcast that he spoke with Berhalter after the selection, who said he’s the type of player who would work on the wing in his 4-2-3-1 formation.
“His skill set and what he is capable of doing is extraordinary,” Hackworth said. “Every team needs that. He has a long way to go still, but he’s certainly capable of reaching that.”