ST. PETERSBURG — The first time a soccer academy shattered Lewis Hilton’s dream, he was just 15.
Plymouth Argyle said Hilton likely wouldn’t earn a contract as an undersized player; and at age 16, Exeter City released him. An “absolutely distraught” Hilton wanted to earn a professional soccer contract in England, his home country. Attending college in the United States — or leaving a club’s feeder program — hadn’t crossed his radar.
Hilton realized he needed to find programs that maximized his 5-foot-7 frame. He’d likely never grow again, but he could learn to create advantages from the inches he had.
He started by joining Hartpury College, a program designed to “rebuild” players like Hilton with crushed dreams, development coach Shaun Gluyas said. From there he attended Young Harris College, a Division II school in Georgia, where Mark McKeever taught strategies to cloak the size disadvantage and make Hilton’s skills more attractive.
“It’s a problem that a lot of soccer players have,” McKeever said. “They have all the technical aspects and the brain, but they don’t have the physical aspects to back it up at the higher level.”
Eventually, Hilton generated attention. Now 28, he is midway through his third year as a central midfielder with the Rowdies (8-3-6), facilitating their offense and leading them with 86 crosses and 27 chances created (entering play Friday).
“Everything goes through (Hilton),” head coach Neill Collins said, and he allows the Rowdies to “tick” by igniting an offense tied for third in the league with 32 goals.
“He always had the technical ability,” Gluyas said. “It was just helping him figure out how to make the space, then use that technical ability.”
Hilton’s father, Jim, said they’ll never know if Plymouth Argyle would have signed Hilton had he stayed one more season, but the academy didn’t play him in the Milk Cup, a prestigious youth tournament. Then Hilton’s position dropped from midfield to fullback to out of the lineup altogether. And when he didn’t appear in a preseason tournament at age 15, his parents spoke with Hilton about not wasting time. The reward he wanted likely wouldn’t materialize.
An Exeter City coach connected Hilton with Hartpury College, and Hilton spent his first season on Gluyas’ development team while winning the U19 national championship the next year. He impressed Gluyas with an ability to build attacks 40 yards upfield. Around those two seasons, Hilton paired with Pass4Soccer — an organization directing international soccer players to United States scholarships and roster spots. Recruiting footage from games hadn’t become popular yet, so Tina Hilton made her son a video that they sent to Division II programs.
Hilton never toured Young Harris’ campus — it was a “huge gamble,” he said — but McKeever’s pitch resonated and he studied player bios, looking for common threads within a program transitioning from the junior college level to Division II.
Young Harris provided the landing spot Hilton needed. He scored in his first career game, while adding five more goals and 17 more points en route to earning Peach Belt Conference freshman of the year. A free kick from Hilton outside the 18-yard box was “almost like a penalty kick for our team,” McKeever said. Three seasons and one Premier Development League session later, Hilton turned his first USL combine into his first contract — with the Charlotte Independence.
After his first two seasons, though, interest dipped again. Anthony Pulis, then the Saint Louis FC coach, was surprised he didn’t have more competition recruiting Hilton, but added that his size probably turned coaches away again. Back in England, Jim said Hilton was an “absolute nightmare,” too. They’d just moved into a new house and didn’t have wi-fi, so contacting coaches, or checking to see if they had contacted him, became difficult.
But eventually a phone call from Pulis ended with an offer, and Hilton became a full-time starter for the first time. He opened 33 games in 2018 and 32 in 2019.
In the 2019 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup round of 16, Hilton’s corner kick curled to teammate Sam Fink on the far side for a 93rd-minute goal that lifted Saint Louis over FC Cincinnati, an MLS team. It was “a moment of brilliance at a time when we needed it most,” Pulis said, and fans in the stadium exploded as Saint Louis became one of just two USL Championship teams in the Cup quarterfinals.
That same season, Hilton signed a pre-contract with the Rowdies. Collins envisioned the midfielder dictating pace with his strong passing and set piece delivery, and many of the chances he has created since — including a pass from the midfield line last weekend that split a pair of Pittsburgh defenders and reached Leo Fernandes’ foot outside the 18-yard box, leading to a goal — stem from those strengths, Collins said.
“I’ve always been a player (wanting to be) involved in everything,” Hilton said. “Whether we’re defending, whether we’re attacking.”
vs. Memphis 901 FC, 7:30 Saturday
Al Lang Stadium