Jonathan Lewis was initially startled when beckoned to his first United States men’s national team camp, but after further evaluation, the decision by head coach Gregg Berhalter became less stunning.
The New York City FC winger was in Trinidad on vacation with his family when he received the good news.
“I just got the email in the middle of the night and I was like, wait, I thought it was a joke at first,” Lewis told Pro Soccer USA during an interview on the podcast Soccer City Spotlight. “But then I realized that, wow, this is serious.”
Lewis was the 28th and final selection by Berhalter, who had introduced 27 camp members eight days earlier. That group included Lewis’ mate at NYCFC, Sean Johnson.
Lewis averaged a mere 6.4 minutes per match over the course of 34 regular fixtures in the 2018 season for NYCFC. Despite the limited engagements in Major League Soccer, the Generation Adidas player produced three goals and four assists in his 14 appearances – enough to draw the attention of the new national team manager.
“I spoke to Gregg the day after (the selection) and he just told me that going forward I can help the team and I bring some qualities that fit his system,” Lewis said.
With six seasons as the head man at Columbus Crew SC, Berhalter had multiple opportunities to see Lewis close up – including City’s 2-0 win over Crew SC on July 14 at Yankee Stadium. Lewis played a season-high 35 minutes and captivated the home audience with an attacking display that helped lead to both goals over the final 10 minutes.
Was this the performance that elevated Lewis to a spot at January camp in Chula Vista, Calif.?
“I definitely think it probably did help a little bit but I also think as a coach one game is not going to make a difference,” Lewis said. “Maybe he has been watching the whole year and the last two years. Maybe there was a little conversation with the coaching staff that said something from New York. I don’t really know but I guess I’m not supposed to know I just have to go in and work hard and learn from the coaches and learn from the veterans – that’s all I can do.”
Beyond his evaluations of Lewis in MLS, Berhalter took the two-hour drive between Columbus and Akron, Ohio to watch a Division 1 power – and Lewis – who excelled in his single season with the Akron Zips, a perennial top-10 side ranked No. 1 in the land for a portion of the 2016 season.
“I had spoken to him before,” Lewis said of Berhalter. “He watched me a few times when I was at Akron, so I think he’s got a good idea of what I can do and that I was a player he was familiar with.”
Lewis is also accustomed to Berhalter’s methods, which prioritize possession and precision in the attack – similar to the brand introduced to Lewis by former NYCFC coach Patrick Vieira.
“The way we try to play, especially under Patrick, I think, it’s very, very similar to what Gregg likes to do,” Lewis said of NYCFC.
Lewis was a valued reserve when the U.S. U-20’s won the Concacaf championship in 2017, and he senses a positive approach under Berhalter can generate an exciting and more effective style on the senior team.
“We have talented young players, like Tim Weah and Christian Pulisic, who are plying their trades in Europe against the best,” said Lewis, one of 13 players in camp who are keen to earn their first senior cap with upcoming matches against Panama (Jan. 27) and Costa Rica (Feb. 2). “Getting a system where the coach can believe that we can attack and attack and play possession soccer is going to be really helpful going forward. I think the U.S. is ready to make that stride in Concacaf and be a possession-dominating team and go up against some of the top level international teams and go out and play against them and try to dominate.”
In order to acquire the proper attacking mentality, Lewis senses Berhalter is going to encourage players to venture into actions that in the past may have been deemed too perilous.
“My belief is that the players are all good enough and the coaching staff is fine – I really think its just about taking a risk,” Lewis said. “Sometimes when I’ve watched the U.S. play, we’re a little bit more afraid of taking some risks. When you watch some of the best teams in the world like Manchester City, Barcelona, Real Madrid – they obviously have some of the best players in the world – but to get there, their young players are taking a lot of risks.
“It’s not that we’re not good enough – it’s just more about being able to take the risk. When we play a team like a France or Germany, let’s take a risk and attack them and put them on their back foot, and if they counter us and score, we learn from our mistake. But we have to keep attacking, try to keep the ball and not just play for a tie.”
Lewis said his strength is an unabashed approach when in possession, but he understands his deficiencies lie on the defensive side of the ball.
“I like to try to attack and be creative and try things even if its not going to come off,” said the former first-round choice in the MLS SuperDraft. “But I have to obviously fix some of the stuff in my game and I have to get more organized when it comes to defensively. One of my focuses going into this camp is to make sure that I know what my defensive responsibilities are when I get a chance to play or in training and show that I can do both sides of the ball.”
The defensive quandary is what Lewis assumes has restricted his playing time at New York City FC.
“That’s what I think it is – that’s what the coaches have said so that’s the main focus for me,” Lewis said. “I have to try to get games so I can shore up the defensive ability because sometimes the tactical aspect is not always learned in practice. The last two years have been a learning experience. It’s good to learn but now I think it’s time to show my stuff and get the chance to show my stuff.”
Consequently, the upcoming preseason will be the most vital in Lewis’ nascent career.
“I have to figure out the best way I can get myself in the team, whether it’s on the attacking side or the defensive side, so that I can be a mainstay in the U-23’s and maybe the senior national team,” Lewis said. “And a mainstay in New York City.”