Like many kids of Caribbean heritage growing up in Broward County, Jonathan Lewis was taught to dribble a soccer ball as a toddler, joined pickup games with uncles and cousins and was in love with the sport by the time he reached Central Park Elementary School.
Lewis’ father, Joshua, is Jamaican. His mother, Sarah, was raised in London and her family is from Trinidad. Those family soccer roots are a big reason 22-year-old Lewis is now a winger on the U.S. Under-23 team and playing in Major League Soccer for the Colorado Rapids.
“My family being Caribbean and British, all they ever did is play and watch soccer,” said Lewis, who is in Miami this week training with the U.S. Under-23 team. “I really liked it from the time I was little; and being in South Florida, so multicultural, soccer was so big down here.”
Coach Anis Jerbi, who was club director with Plantation FC, remembers when scrawny, speedy Lewis showed up at Central Park to play with a rec team when he was 6 years old. Jerbi coached Lewis from Under-10 until he was Under-18 with the Kendall SC Academy and conceded that he never imagined, when Lewis was young, that he would reach MLS or a U.S. national team roster.
“As a kid he wasn’t so special on the field,” Jerbi said. “Technically, he was all over the place. But what made him stand out is if we had practice from 6 p.m. to 7:30, he’d get there at 5 and stay until 9, shooting and dribbling by himself. Also, he always wanted the ball during games. In fact, when he was between 12 and 14, I had so many parents complain that Jon wouldn’t release the ball. He loved to dribble, take guys on and beat them, and I wasn’t going to take that away from him.”
When Lewis was 16, he was spotted by English scouts at a camp in Orlando. He was invited to trials with Middlesbrough, Fulham and Bradford City, which signed him when he graduated from South Plantation High.
His parents, both educators in the Broward County school system, urged him to go to college. He had several offers, but he wanted to play pro soccer, so he moved to Bradford City in July 2015. After four months, he decided to return home.
“I was at a lower-level club, had to fend for myself at 18 in a very small city with no family or friends,” Lewis said. “I was getting paid for housing and a stipend. I wouldn’t say I was homesick because I left six months later to go to college, but it wasn’t the right time for me to be over in England. I wasn’t ready. I had to make that mature decision not to fight it out, but that there would be another path for me to eventually get back to Europe.”
He returned home, began to doubt himself, but rejoined Kendall SC and regained his confidence.
“I started thinking, `Hey, I can go to college and play and at least get to MLS,’’’ Lewis said. “And from MLS, maybe I can get back to Europe.”
He went to Akron University for one semester, was called up to the U.S. Under-20 team and was selected No. 3 overall in the 2017 MLS SuperDraft by NYCFC, which traded up and paid $250,000 in allocation money to the Chicago Fire in exchange for the pick. After two years trying to break into the starting lineup, he was traded to Colorado, where he was a regular starter this season.
His contract guarantees that his college tuition will be paid for by the league if he returns to school in the next 15 years.
“Hopefully, next year will be my breakout year with Colorado and I’ll make the Olympic team,” Lewis said. “Our men’s team didn’t qualify for the Olympics the past two cycles, so I want to help get us there. We have a really talented team this time around.”
He also hopes Colorado gets a road game at Inter Miami on its 2020 schedule.
“Growing up here, I always wished we had an MLS team to support, and I think Miami is going to be one of the best markets in the league, like Atlanta and LAFC. It would be so much fun to come back and play in front of my family, friends and coaches and teammates from Plantation and Kendall. It’s been a long journey.”