By Elliott Trotman |
Lewis Hilton may not be one of the world’s most recognised footballers, however, for English footballers he may be considered a pioneer to the American soccer dream.
Hilton accepted a scholarship back in 2011 to attend a division two program at Young Harris University in Georgia. There he majored in business and public policy. Since then, Hilton has gone from strength to strength, only recently helping the Tampa Bay Rowdies win the USL Western Conference Championship. Speaking on his college journey, Hilton said:
“It was a great opportunity for me to go out to the States, continue my education and develop as a player, along with also getting a university degree which is something you don’t see here in England.”
“I knew nothing about the college or what I was getting myself into, I didn’t know if it was going to be big or small, I didn’t know what the standard of play was going to be like. All I had was one phone call with the coach and I was sold. He was the guy I wanted to play for!”
After four years of hard work, Hilton was offered a professional contract to play for Charlotte Independence of the United Soccer League’s (USL) Eastern Conference located in North Carolina.
“I was handed an opportunity to be on a team. I wasn’t worried about being drafted. I saw an opportunity which I had been working towards for a long time and I had to take it,” Hilton said.
One major difference from the States compared to the UK is the draft system. Hilton voiced his opinion on this along with the non-existent promotion and relegation style of leagues. Hilton said:
“With the college system it’s brilliant that people are encouraged to get a degree you don’t see that in England. Players don’t have anything to fall back on and with an injury, your life can change so quickly.
“Most guys in the States sign their first contract when they’re 22 (for a player in England this is relatively old). The positive of signing later on is that college gives you time to develop as an athlete and as a person. When the time comes, you’re more ready for the professional game than you would be as an 18-year-old.
“In terms of promotion and relegation, I don’t like it. However, I don’t think the system would work out there with how the sports is seen and the fact that it is relatively new to the fans.”
Hilton believes that unlike other American sports, football doesn’t run in their blood.
“In England you have years of history, a history that you haven’t got in the States. If West Ham got relegated to the National League, they’d still have thirty thousand fans every weekend, If LA Galaxy get relegated to the USL, their fans will stop coming.
“The game is developing at a rapid rate with new teams being established in a variety of American markets. This is positive and there is still more to be done for the likes of Tampa to be battling for promotion in the near future.”
Being 27, Hilton still is eager to further his progressions in the game, especially being so close to the MLS. Speaking about his future goals, Hilton said:
“Since turning pro, I’ve strived so hard to get the best standard of football possible. With the work I’ve put in, I do believe I can play at the next level. However, with only Seven international slots on an MLS roster, it is definitely difficult to break in. These slots are usually for the premier overseas players, established overseas players in European Leagues.
“The window for that opportunity is closing, no team is going to give a 27-year-old time to develop and why would you when you can sign a professional player who would make an immediate impact.”
Despite these ambitions, Hilton emphasises if his career was to remain in the USL that wouldn’t be a problem. Hilton said:
“The league is growing with new additions in terms of teams and investments, this has led to the competition being greater. For me to see this and be a part of this growth, I’d be happy to stay here till the end of my career!”
Though Hilton has plenty of years left playing professional football, it’s never a bad idea to plan for life after football.
“I’m taking my coaching badges now and getting the right qualifications so there are opportunities for me when I’m done, however, I don’t know if coaching will be my goal.”
“There’s no real plans as of yet, especially in times like these,” Hilton says.
Regardless of Hilton’s future goals, his current life residing in Tampa, Florida whilst playing professional football is a dream even he couldn’t expect. Being defending Western Conference Champions for the Tampa Bay Rowdies, 2021 is another big year for Cornwall’s Hilton. Let’s hope Hilton’s rise will inspire other talented young footballers to chase their dream in smaller markets. It’s stories like these that prove that there’s more to world football than just Europe.