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Interview with Kean Lewis - "I know I am good enough to play in both the I-League and the ISL"

Interview with Kean Lewis, an Indian football player plying his trade in the United States.

Interview with Kean Lewis, who is currently playing for Houston Dynamo U-23 and Laredo Heat

In early 2010, I had interviewed Kean Lewis (from Mumbai), who had landed a trial with the Leicester City Academy (junior team). At that time, Kean was 14 years of age. He was a find and a product of PIFA (Premier India Football Academy).

Kean’s story is not too different from many young urban Indian children who have shown potential at a young age, but then real life takes over as they grow up. Real life refers to the need to get a good education (sometimes outside of India), the desire and the means to play overseas, as they wish to play in a place with better facilities.

And ultimately this comes up against the harsh reality of how truly hard it is to get a contract with an overseas club and, of course, the issue of getting a work permit. Let’s catch up with Kean and find out where he is now – 

Kean, let’s start from where we left off in 2010. What happened at the Leicester City trials? How did you fare when it came to playing and what stopped you from getting a contract or a deal?

Leicester City was a wonderful experience where I was exposed to International methods of training. Playing at international levels is a truly fulfilling experience. I trained with the U-16 and U-14 squads. I was the highest goal scorer in the pre-season games for the U-14’s. I was just 13 years of age and I was advised to relocate, which was a too big step to take at that point in time. All in all, it was a great learning experience.

Would it have been possible for you to get to and impress the Leicester City trials without having someone like PIFA?

PIFA had a skills test in Mumbai, Goa, Manchester, Milan etc. Around 200-300 kids may have participated in Mumbai. I was the winner of the skills test having the highest points amongst all the kids in that year.

Having excelled amongst all the cities and impressed with my talent, PIFA (Mr.Nirvan Shah) together with Nigel Empson made it possible for me to go to Leicester City. I also attended the Bobby Charlton Soccer Skills (BCSS) World Finals representing PIFA India and stood 6th overall and 3rd in my age group.

Were there other kids who were as good as you at PIFA or outside of PIFA, when you were 14? Where are they now?

Yes, there are many kids both in PIFA and I would say even more outside of PIFA. All the kids at that age have different priorities. Football comes with a lot of sacrifice, dedication, and hard work. Many of them didn't know how far they wanted to go in football. Were they willing to walk the unknown path to making football a career?

At such a young age, you are dependent on someone to take you to practices and matches, or at least to give you their support. I was truly fortunate to have parents who encouraged me and motivated me to pursue a sport which isn’t Cricket.  

Countless kids gave up football and focused on their education, mostly because their parents would not support their dream. Indian parents prefer that their children concentrate on academics as that gives them a secure future. Being a sportsman is treading in unchartered territory. Juggling studies along with a sport isn’t very easy. Kids then have to make a decision and pick one and then the toughest part is to stay with it.

What did you do after you came back from Leicester?

After Leicester, I continued playing for Mahindra United under the guidance of Santosh Kashyap, who has always been a great support and source of encouragement. We participated in the U-15 Manchester Cup where I was the highest goal scorer. We ended as runners up losing out to East Bengal in the finals. I played for their U-15, U-17 and U- 19 teams.

In the years that followed, I played for the Maharashtra U-16 (highest scorer), was also selected for a trial with the India U 16 and represented Mahindra in the U-19 Junior I-League whilst I was 16 years, the youngest player on the team.

My coaches believed that I would be selected for the India squad when I went for the U-16 India camp. During the U-19 matches, I was picked by the TATA Football Academy to train with them at their facility in Jamshedpur.

I represented Jharkhand in the U-19 Junior Nationals in 2009 scoring whopping 9 goals in 8 matches, which was the highest in the Nationals, but I wasn't invited to the India U-19 camp.

You spent a year at the TFA (Tata Football Academy) 2008 to 2009. What was that like in terms of facilities and training? Why were you there just for a year?

I actually spent a year and half at TFA; from 2008 until the summer of 2010 before I decided to study and play in the US.  TFA is a great football academy, the best in India. Players at the academy are some of the best in India. All of the players I played with there are now in top I-League teams and some even in the National team.

The facilities there are the best any budding footballer could ask for. Great coaches, trainers, a gym, accommodation and food; don't think anyone could ask for more. It was a great and appropriate environment created as everyone ate, breathed and slept football.

The only area that it lacked was education. I am the product of a Chartered Accountant (Mum) and an Engineer (Dad) and at TFA there was little or no education as the boys came from different backgrounds and had none or varying levels of education.

Having practice sessions twice a day left me with no time to go to school.  In TFA, I attended classes to help me with subjects like Math and Accounting and my Mum shuttled between Mumbai and Jamshedpur to coach me. I appeared for Class 12 exams while still keeping football the priority.

I was happy to be under the guidance of TFA coaches Ranjan Choudhary, Carlton Chapman and Vijaykumar. My coaches appreciated and encouraged me. They liked my European game style and sent me for tournaments as part of the senior squad to play in different tournaments although I was a junior.

Kean Lewis in action for Laredo Heat

What made you decide on Fairleigh Dickinson as the University of your Choice in the United States? What degree did you enroll for?

My parents were of the opinion that an education would not only help me after my footballing days were well behind me but that it would help me understand the nuances of the game better. So we looked for something that helped me to study as well as play football and decided that the American education system allows for this.

Many of my coaches recommended I go abroad and play. I was not willing to stop playing football. So whilst at TFA I applied to multiple universities in the US. Academically, I qualified for all of them based on my SAT and TOEFL scores.

I was however, keen on playing for the college as college soccer is huge in the US. I had full scholarships from some colleges that were in Division 3 of the NCAA. I wanted to play at the highest level, which was Division 1. 

Looking at my video highlights and football CV from India, not many of the coaches at the D1 level were convinced. Firstly, they weren’t able to comprehend the levels and systems I had played in and secondly they weren’t sure if India has good footballers as we have an extremely low FIFA ranking.

Over the summer of 2010, I came to the US where I visited the coach of Fairleigh Dickinson University (FDU) in New Jersey. It was one of the D1 universities that I had applied to. He was able to organize a scrimmage where he could see me play.

After seeing me for only a few minutes, he was totally convinced that I would fit in well with his team at the Division 1 level at FDU. The university offered me a scholarship as well. I knew over the next 4 years I would improve my game skills and increase my exposure to high-level football.

I enrolled in the 4 year Sports Administration Undergraduate degree and came to FDU in August 2010 to start pre-season.

How did you do when it came to the football program and when did you graduate?

FDU play their football in Div I of the NCAA. For the first year, I struggled with the new environment. I still remember the first few weeks of pre-season where we practice twice a day, and there was so much fitness involved in the drills. US college soccer has a high pace and it is very physical.

In India I always preferred playing as a forward, however, my coach Seth Roland thought I did not quite fit the profile of a big strong lone forward which was what they needed my freshman year. Owing to my speed the coach put me on the wing where I found more success. Much more adapted now to their style of play, I became a winger. I started all 7 games in my sophomore year before suffering an injury that kept me out for the rest of the season. Working hard in rehab I came back stronger.

The following year we were the NEC (North East Conference) Champions and made it to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Division I tournament.

I played all the games in my senior year. The coach restructured the forward line-up, and so I was moved back up top as a forward where I did really well. I received the Knights Award that year, an award that is given to the player who performs the best in that season. I graduated in Sports Administration in Dec 2013, (5 months early than expected) and moved to Houston from New Jersey.

What did you do after your graduation from the University?

After graduating, it is extremely difficult to continue staying in the USA especially for international students like me, with a Sports degree... I had to stay employed full-time as part of the requirement for a visa extension.

Houston was great when it came to job opportunities. I was with a couple of top football Organizations in Houston as I had the requisite coaching license. Whilst working, I continued to play football. I played for Houston Hurricanes, which plays in the TPSL or the 4th division of football in Houston.

The owner Brendan Keyes was very helpful and kind to let me play the remainder of the season where I became the top goal scorer for his team, scoring 7 goals in 10 games as a winger. He believed that I should be playing at a much higher level.

In the summer of 2014 Houston Dynamo was offering tryouts for their U-23 academy team.  There were about 250 trialists. 95% of the squad was already set, comprising of the Dynamos U-18 academy graduates. Of the 250 trialists, I was one of the two who were selected into the team from the outside.

Kean Lewis with Julio Baptista, after Houston Dynamo faced Cruzeiro

What has it been like playing for the Houston Dynamo (U-23) team?

Practice and games with the Dynamos were very professionally conducted. My coaches James Clarkson and Scott Fraser were some of the best coaches in Houston. Training daily over the summer for about 2 months whilst working was hard were great. We played 2 big games against Monterrey (Mexico) and Cruzeiro (Brazil).

The game against Cruzeiro was intense and a great experience as not only did I have a goal and an assist to my name but I was playing against former Real Madrid and Brazil international Julio Baptista. Being 21 years, I was eligible to play another year with the U-23 squad in the summer of 2015 and was re-invited for next year’s season.

Together with my coaching license and experience and my football performances, the coaches at Dynamo asked me to work with them to coach some of the younger kids of the Academy. I was now involved with working at the grassroots levels of an MLS club -Houston Dynamo.

After the summer of 2014, I continued to play in the Houston Football Association Premier League for Dynamo, which is the top league in Houston (not U-23).

How did you end up playing in Mexico? How long did you stay there and how did you deal with the language and culture?

One of the coaches that I had worked with at the Dynamo camps had a Scout coming over from Mexico. They were holding open tryouts from which he recruited me. He arranged for my stay with a family in Acapulco, Mexico.

I trained with the team Inter Acapulco for almost 5 weeks. Inter Acapulco played in the Segunda Divison in Mexico. I was comfortable with both the players and their style of play and blended well. Mexico is ranked much higher than the US at football.

The Spanish language and culture was something that I had a bit of a hard time with. The food was great and not an issue. The family I lived with spoke only Spanish. I soon learnt quite a bit of Spanish, enough to be able to communicate about football and daily activities.  It was the football that was exciting.

I left Mexico having performed well enough for them to want me on the team. I was now just awaiting a contract to put things in place with my visa. Unfortunately few weeks after, the club folded up.

How tall are you and what position do you mostly play/ what style of play do you prefer?

I’m 5 ft 7in. I play as a wide midfielder but can also play attacking midfield and forward. I like to dribble at defenders rather than having my back to the goal. Most of the teams I’ve played for I’ve had success when it comes to one on one with defenders. I’m not tall so I prefer the ball being played to my feet.

Playing with some of the top players and working with the top coaches, I’ve grown leaps and bounds when it comes tactically. Both in college and at club level in the US, there is a lot of tactical focus which has made me a much more versatile player.

So what are you looking for in the next step of your football journey? Have you had any real feelers from overseas?

Though football coaching keeps me close to my passion, my true love is to play the game. I want to be a professional football player. That is my true calling. I am currently playing for Houston Dynamo U-23 and a club the Laredo Heat in Laredo, Texas for the summer, with an eye on a Club that wants me at a professional level, be it the MLS, USL or NASL in America or the I-League or ISL in India.

Are you open to looking at playing in India for an Indian team?

Playing football is what I want ….anywhere in the world. And there is nothing better than starting at home playing for your country. Being acknowledged first at home by your own people is a rare honour. 

For reasons unknown I have not been given an opportunity to display my talent neither in the I-league nor in the ISL. The boys that I have played with when I was in Mahindra and TFA are currently in the I-league or the National team as well as the ISL. I know I am good enough to make the cut. I am raring to go.

What is your take on the ISL?

The ISL was planned as a platform to showcase talent from within the country and make football huge in India. The organizers have proved that if marketed well football can attract eyeballs equal to if not larger than the IPL. A majority of the players on the squad need to be Indian instead of foreigners so that the Indian lads get an opportunity to display their talent on the big stage.

It’s a great exposure for the Indian players to be playing alongside and against legends and foreign players of great experience. The recruiting process is what I don't quite understand. The stories of how players get into the ISL are a question.I do hope that future ISL drafts give opportunities to pure talented youngsters and I hope India makes its mark on the football arena soon.

Many thanks for taking the time to speak to me.

Here is a link to some Youtube videos of Kean playing while in the United States - 

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