It’s fair to say that Lewis Hilton does not regret his decision to accept an offer to study in the States back in 2012.
“I want to get better everyday and just enjoy having the best job in the world!”
Hilton, a 24-year-old midfielder from Newquay, signed his first professional contract in 2016 when he joined American second-tier side, Charlotte Independence after more than three years studying in Georgia. When it came to signing a contract which would further extend his time away from his homeland, there was no chance the distance would have stopped him from taking up the opportunity, having spent several years away from home already before his arrival in the States.
“I was contacted to attend Hartpury College in Gloucester, about three-and-a-half hours from my hometown,” he says, talking about the first time he had to move away from home.
“I was fortunate enough to be named captain in my second year and win a national championship.”
Having grown up at the academies of the two professional sides closest to home, Plymouth Argyle and Exeter City, Hilton joined the prestigious Hartpury College despite the distance it put between him and his family home. The college has a reputation for building strong football sides, having won the English Colleges’ national title five times in the past. Australian international Matt Smith is another of their successful alumni.
Hilton’s national championship win as Hartpury’s captain saw them defeat a side containing Callum Ross who would go on to be one of the midfielder’s teammates in the US.
It was after this that another opportunity, even further from home, would arise for the former Argyle man.
“During my second year at Hartpury, I was contacted by Tom Nutter (a US college graduate turned soccer scholarship expert formerly of PASS4Soccer) who explained the potential opportunities out in USA.
“I eventually attended a couple of showcases where coaches from US colleges were watching on. Once I spoke with coach Mark McKeever at Young Harris College (YHC) I knew he was the coach I wanted to play for and with Tom’s guidance I was able to make the move out to USA in August 2012.”
Hilton’s new college was based in Georgia in the southeast of the country and he took no time at all to feel at home in his new surroundings and establish his priorities whilst studying for a major in business and public policy.
“The transition moving out here was surprisingly easy,” he says. “I had a lot of teammates in the same boat as me at YHC and I had been living away from home at Hartpury so I was able to deal with being away from my family quite well. I was still able to go home every Christmas [to see family].
“Soccer was always my priority and I always had the dream to be a professional. While at college, I would just make sure I did the school what was required and the rest of the time I focused on my goal of having a career in football.
“To give myself the best chance of playing professionally I completed my degree in three-and-a-half years.”
During his time playing for the Young Harris College soccer side, known as the Mountain Lions, Hilton’s stats were remarkable. In 80 appearances over four seasons, he scored 25 goals and contributed a further 30 assists as he won several college and national individual accolades.
It was no surprise then that when his time at college was over, several sides invited the midfielder to trial with them and it wasn’t long until the Newquay-native’s lifelong dream became true.
“My main goal coming out to the USA was to keep the dream of being a professional alive. Charlotte Independence was the first trial I had scheduled. Fortunately, I was able to perform well and they offered me a contract straight away. It was incredible feeling to sign my first contract.
“The age of 22 is typically pretty late for an English player to sign their first contract but I always had the belief I would get there!”
As well as college soccer, Hilton also played for PDL side Ocala Stampede during his summer holidays. The fourth-tier PDL is mostly full of college prospects looking to continue to work on their fitness during the summer but despite this additional experience, playing for Charlotte in the USL would still prove to be a huge step-up.
“The jump from college to USL was pretty drastic,” he says. “I was now playing with and against guys who had been pros for ten plus years. The speed of play, technical ability and competitiveness was better as everyone is fighting for their job at this level.
“But my teammates and coaching staff, mainly assistant Troy Lesesne, helped me deal with the transition well.”
If the step-up to the USL was a big one for Hilton, he didn’t show it. In his first season as a pro in 2016, he made 28 league appearances scoring three times, following that up with 31 appearances and four goals last season. His two years saw him become established in a strong Charlotte side who twice made the play-off quarter-finals during his time with the club.
After those two seasons though, he made the move more than 700 miles away to join fellow USL side Saint Louis, albeit a side in the other conference. The club are managed by Anthony Pulis, the son of Middlesbrough manager Tony.
“I’ve loved every minute here in Saint Louis this season playing under coach Anthony. He’s a dedicated coach who has prioritised hard work and organisation, as well as allowing players to play with freedom. I’m sure his dad shares those characteristics.”
So far this season, Hilton has missed just one minute of action, starting all 24 of his club’s league games, scoring once and contributing a further five assists. With more than ten matches to go, Saint Louis currently sit in a play-off spot.
Those stats mean that it has been another impressive season from the 24-year-old and he does not intend to stop improving anytime soon.
“I am an ambitious player and I’m hungry to play at the highest level possible.
“I’m unsure where that will be but I’m determined to work as hard as possible to have the best career I can.”