Kean Lewis will be putting on the FC Pune City jersey for the first time during their Indian Super League (ISL) season opener against Delhi Dynamos at home on Wednesday evening, and would have bittersweet memories of the last time the teams met at the Balewadi Stadium.
Lewis put Delhi ahead, scoring the ISL's 400th goal in the process, before Pune staged a strong second-half comeback to sneak a 4-3 win. This game, despite the personal landmark, wasn't among the favourite games for winger Lewis, whose four goals were only exceeded by Kerala Blasters' CK Vineeth among all Indians.
"Beating Kerala 2-0 (at home) and then the first match away to the champions Chennaiyin FC (won 3-1) -- I was thrilled to contribute to a win," recalls Lewis, who was born in Thane but moved to U.S. for higher studies and began with professional soccer abroad.
"I started with an amateur team called Houston Hurricanes and then signed with a second division team called Houston Dynamos for two seasons," says Lewis, who was played regularly before a change in coaching staff that prompted him to look for more game time elsewhere. "I then moved to a team in Texas called Loredo Heat, which was owned by an Indian. They were really happy to have signed an Indian. Even today, they have kept in touch with me. This was a fourth division team, but they took care of everything -- transport, salary and everything."
Lewis played the ISL for the first time for Delhi last year, a team where he "fitted in with the kind of players" seamlessly. Having been with Mohun Bagan in the I-League, he noticed the stark difference in how ISL clubs were able to provide better facilities.
"The most important thing is that players are given priority, whether in terms of travel, stay or the training facilities. I-League is not as organised, though I can only speak from my personal experience," he says. "There were issues with payments, and the accommodation, especially for players coming in from outside the state. That cannot be called professional enough. When you have to arrange your own house, find someone to look after cooking and cleaning, it keeps you occupied.
"In the I-League, you were playing two or three tournaments at one go -- the league, the AFC Cup, Federation Cup and sometimes even for the national team. It could get a little stressful for all players. The grounds were different -- some were turf, some were natural grass. In the ISL, even our training would be on natural grass."
As someone who has played abroad, Lewis says the key for an Indian player to succeed abroad is to start young, and commends Bengaluru FC and India goalkeeper Gurpreet Sandhu for his long tenure with Stabaek in Norway. "You need to be about 12 or 13 years of age, so that you can get into the system in that country you go to. It is not impossible but difficult to do it at an advanced stage in your career. Not many would be able to do what Gurpreet has done -- for the first three years, he hardly got a game. He had the patience to wait it out, when he could easily have given up and been a first-choice goalkeeper for any Indian club."
For the moment, 25-year-old Lewis has a pretty simple aim, considering India have already qualified for the 2019 AFC Asian Cup, and that national coach Stephen Constantine has looked intent on trying out new players across positions.
"I just want to play the ISL and catch the eye of the national coach."