Although the trade of Jonathon Lewis was consummated late Tuesday, the 21-year-old winger’s New York City FC career may have effectively ended three weeks ago in Minnesota.
With NYCFC winless in its initial five matches of the season, head coach Dome Torrent elected to alter the shape of his team and left Lewis – who appeared in all prior matches – out of the squad.
Lewis was dealt to the Colorado Rapids in exchange for $650,000 in allocation money, plus an additional $100,000 based on performance criteria. New York City also obtained an international roster spot for 2020. A source with knowledge of the situation said Lewis requested a trade, although it is unclear when that appeal was made.
From the outset of 2019, Torrent was determined to plug his players into a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 system, whereby the wingers provided the width in the attack. The dynamic winger was a regular during the preseason after excelling in a national team call-up with new USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter.
Lewis started the Pigeons’ regular season opener at Orlando City SC, logging a career-high 72 minutes as a left wing in a 4-3-3 shape. He assisted on NYC’s first goal of the season — an Ebenezer Ofori strike in the eventual 2-2 draw with the Lions.
But Lewis was dropped from consideration with the alteration to a three-back system in a 3-3 result against Minnesota at Allianz Field April 13. After a quality 42-minute reserve shift in a 2-0 triumph at D.C. United April 21, Lewis never played again. He was not included in the gameday squad twice and served as an unused substitute in the 2-0 triumph at Montreal last weekend.
The new system morphs into a 3-4-3 when City is in possession, with the wide areas occupied by the wingbacks – most recently Ben Sweat portside and Anton Tinnerholm on the right. The three-front consists of the striker, Héber, with Maxi Moralez and Ismael Tajouri-Shradi between the lines or in the half spaces – not on the flank.
“My players are comfortable playing this way,” said Torrent said, whose team recorded its first three wins of the season during its current six-match unbeaten run. “If you are playing 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 and do not win a game, then you need to change, no?”
Perhaps Torrent was providing a forecast of the Lewis trade after training Tuesday when he said, “Maybe we have the right players to play this system. If I want to play 4-3-3, maybe I need the right wingers. When you don’t have these kind of players, you have to change, especially when you don’t get results.”
With designated player Alexandru Mitriță returning soon from injury and Taty Castellanos effective in dual roles up top, there was no place for the former No. 3 overall pick in the 2017 MLS SuperDraft.
“When you decide to play 3-4-3, you play with just three offensive players,” Torrent said. “That means we have right now seven players.”
Torrent likely judged Lewis as lacking the combination of versatility and effectiveness compared to his stablemates.
The symptoms were consistently present in Torrent’s evaluation of Lewis. While Berhalter praised the Akron product for his performance in January camp, Torrent did not view those routines in quite the same manner, even after Lewis earned an assist in each of his first two international matches.
“It’s not enough to do two amazing actions – it’s not enough.” Torrent said at the time. “He was able to assist two amazing goals – I agree – but I expect about him more and more in every single game. Soccer is about what happens when you have the ball, but also what happens when you don’t have the ball. We need to improve about that.”
Torrent rewarded Lewis with two starting assignments out of his six appearances in 2019 – his first starting duties since 2017.
History will show the former MLS Combine MVP was productive in his limited minutes during three seasons for NYCFC. Playing the equivalent of just under nine full matches, Lewis produced three goals and five assists for the Pigeons.
Lewis’ Generation Adidas contract expires at the end of this season. If he were left unprotected by NYCFC, the club would risk losing his services with nothing in return. Consequently, the transaction with Colorado was a pact too prosperous for the club to pass on.