The New York Red Bulls selected Boston College's Zeiko Lewis with the 17th pick of the first round of the 2017 MLS SuperDraft. Conventional wisdom states that beyond the top 10 or so of any given cohort, it is difficult for teams in MLS to pluck impact players from the college ranks. The US soccer landscape is rapidly evolving, and increasingly the best of the youth ranks are channeled straight into pro deals, either abroad or increasingly via the MLS Homegrown Player rule.
Lewis hasn't kicked a ball yet for RBNY, but he has definitely made an impact. Amidst a procession of worthy-but-forgettable thank-you speeches from prospects grateful to be handed a shot at a pro career, Lewis's first comments to an audience of MLS staff, (future) players and fans were memorable:
First off, I'd like to thank New York Red Bulls for drafting me. I'm glad they have faith in me, at least somebody at this draft does. So I'd like to encourage everybody else to keep their head up.
There were more than 200 players eligible for the draft, so being the 17th pick by no means suggests Lewis is a sub-par talent, but he clearly took it as a slight and was not at at all shy about letting that be known:
Being selected this late isn't the end of the world...I'm going to prove you guys wrong for drafting me this late.
Nor did he back away from his comments when Top Drawer Soccer's Will Parchman caught up with him:
I made sure to follow up with Red Bulls pick Zeiko Lewis from BC. I legitimately love this dude. pic.twitter.com/cHSBs0TBkD— Will Parchman (@WillParchman) January 13, 2017
Back at the Draft Day podium, Lewis had also betrayed a sense of humor, so we perhaps ought not to take his comments too seriously. In thanking his parents, he noted:
They brought me into this world, and they have threatened many times to take me out of it, so I'm glad they kept me in it.
We don't know much about Zeiko Lewis the RBNY player just yet, but we do know he is an near-instant challenger to Dax McCarty's status as perhaps the team's media and fan favorite.
Not that Lewis has quite made it on to the team, but he's a pretty good bet to emerge from preseason with a Red Bulls roster spot. He was handed a contract by MLS before the Draft, so he already has a commitment from the league - it would be a surprise if RBNY snapped him up without intent to follow MLS's lead and add that contract to its squad.
Lewis's selection by the Red Bulls would appear in keeping with assistant coach Denis Hamlett's pre-draft statement that the team's strategy was simply to pick the best player available when the time came. There were rumors that RBNY would try to force the issue and trade up for a higher pick, and it was reported the team did try to make a run up the draft order to snatch top-rated full back Chris Odoi-Atsem - but it didn't happen.
Instead, one of the better players in the draft came to RBNY. In his post-draft chat with RBNY's Matt Harmon, head coach Jesse Marsch said the team regarded Lewis as one of the top 10 players on the board. When you're selecting 17th overall and you have a top-10 prospect available: well, the Red Bulls did exactly what they said they would do and took what they saw as the best player still in the mix.
Marsch is an outspoken coach, so it would be a surprise if he took against an outspoken player. His comments to Harmon suggest he's happy with what he saw from his first draft pick of 2017:
You saw a lot of personality in his acceptance speech...and a little bit of a chip on his shoulder. So, I mean, things that we like.
Lewis himself appears cut from much the same cloth as the team he has joined. RBNY has made a habit of confronting slights - real and imagined - to motivate and bond the players in the squad. Lewis looks to have the same preference:
@ReggieNaldo bless bra. And u know I'm a humble yout. Just got a chip on my shoulder. Something to prove— Zeiko Lewis (@babypinkz91) January 14, 2017
The 21-year-old Bermudian is not entering professional soccer without understanding of what lies ahead. He comes from a footballing family. Per the Bermuda Royal Gazette, both his father and grandfather were well-regarded players in their time (grandfather Fred reportedly played in NASL). And his great-uncle Eversley Lewis is an important figure in the history of Caribbean soccer, signing for Aberdeen in the 1960s and providing inspiration for one of the first Bermudians to make a significant impact on British club football: Clyde Best, who enjoyed a successful stint at West Ham in the late '60s and early '70s, and scored in Tampa Bay Rowdies 1975 Soccer Bowl triumph over Portland Timbers in NASL.
Among his contemporaries, Lewis counts NYCFC standout Jack Harrison as a former teammate (they went to high school together) and friend. And he got his first taste of senior international soccer when he was 16. Among those wishing him well after he was drafted by RBNY was Huddersfield Town's Nakhi Wells, arguably the best-known Bermudian pro soccer player of the moment.
His ability is reflected in his achievements to date: first international cap at 16; Boston College's all-time career assists record holder. But those achievements are also relatively modest, and if Zeiko Lewis has made anything clear as he takes his first steps toward turning pro, it is that he does not want to allow modesty to stand in the way of his success.