`Note: All data are from FBRef.com unless otherwise noted.
International duty, transfers, injuries, and a flurry of matches over the last month have necessitated some tactical creativity from Colorado Rapids manager, Robin Fraser. The Rapids boss astutely shifted the team to a more flexible three at the back formation in light of USMNT midfielder Kellyn Acosta’s absence and Sam Vines’ departure for Europe to both shore up the back line and create a more fluid and unpredictable attack.
A major beneficiary of this change was Jonathan Lewis. The former NYCFC winger had found himself down the pecking order in Denver, largely featuring as an impact substitute to run at tiring defenders. While we all remember Lewis’ prolific run as a super sub in the 2020 season, the 24-year old found less luck during the first half of the 2021 campaign.
⚠️⚠️⚠️ SUPER SUB ALERT ⚠️⚠️⚠️⚠️— Colorado Rapids (@ColoradoRapids) July 18, 2020
DOWN TO 9 MEN AND JONATHAN LEWIS COMES TO THE RESCUE! pic.twitter.com/yWJVm3K4Eb
After only accruing two starts in the first 11 matches of the season and compiling less than 500 minutes, Lewis looked to be firmly behind a scorching-hot Michael Barrios, the reliable Andre Shinyashiki and, more recently, the electric Braian Galvan. Over the course of the last three games; however, Lewis has featured prominently—at a new position.
Fraser has chosen to utilize Lewis as a center forward, typically in partnership with Shinyashiki. In the last three matches, the two have started and come on as substitutes together as the ‘Pids have brought home two gritty victories and a hard-fought draw at Children’s Mercy Park. While some might view Lewis’ shift to a central position as a necessity in the face of the challenges of the last two months, this three-game sample points to a potential future at striker for the young American. Diego Rubio’s injury and record in front of goal, Lewis’ efficiency and off-ball movement, and the strength of the Rapids’ ball-dominant players may have Robin Fraser thinking that Lewis can lead the line.
Although Rubio brings a well-rounded game and plenty of MLS experience to the Rapids first XI, the forward has left much to be desired across 1100 minutes of play. Rubio adds solid output in other areas, namely his contribution in build up through progressive passing and ball carrying, but his goal output and shooting accuracy fall well below average.
Enter Jon Lewis. In the 2020 and 2021 campaign, Lewis has averaged above .5 xG on over three shots per 90. He is also putting the ball on target at a significantly higher rate than his Chilean teammate. This sort of efficiency in front of goal is vital for a Rapids team not lacking in creativity but underwhelming in terms of goals from open play.
Lewis is more than capable as a dribbler, rating in the upper quartile for dribbles completed and shot creating actions as a result of beating an opponent. Despite his ability to beat a man and create his own shot, his dribbling prowess is not backed up with incisive passing. Positioning Lewis centrally allows him to take advantage of this skillset, while also being the benefactor of players who excel at carrying and distributing the ball in the final third.
Both Kaye and Galvan average nearly 1.5 key passes per 90, while Barrios and Bassett consistently drive the ball into the final third. Lewis brings an additional facet into the attacking fold. Intelligent off-ball movement and well-timed runs that not only create opportunities for the American, but open up space for his teammates.
The data back this up. Lewis finds himself on the end of over 8 progressive passes per 90, indicating that he is especially gifted at making himself available in dangerous spaces. When Lewis drew the penalty against the LA Galaxy, Bassett drove the ball forward into the final third while the Rapids no. 7 splits two defenders with his run before dribbling into the box and eventually being fouled.
His goal against Sporting Kansas City equally highlighted his ability to find space. He shows patience as his strike partner receives the ball, back cuts the defender, and buries the shot following a fortuitous bounce.
On the board first!— Colorado Rapids (@ColoradoRapids) August 29, 2021
Lewis nets his third goal of the year! pic.twitter.com/bdVYkB87G8
His experience as a winger will also come in handy in central areas. The USMNT player’s versatility and ability to drift wide and drop deep to receive the ball could pay dividends for his teammates. Both Galvan and Barrios have shown a flair for a curled banger from the edge of the box, while Bassett, Kaye, and even Acosta have a propensity for late-arriving runs into the box. An active striker who can drag defenders across the box can help to create space for more left-footed Galvan worldies and Mark Anthony-Kaye winning goals.
While the sample size remains small, Lewis has flashed signs of being the striker the Rapids are looking for to close out the regular season and make a run to the MLS Cup. Bringing back a creative playmaker like Younes Namli will only amplify the importance of intelligent off-ball movement and clinical finishing. The addition of Dom Badji recognized the need to get deeper at the position, but the 24-year-old may represent a chance to get better.