Sometimes finding the right spot means going a few more places than everyone else.
Atlanta United midfielder Jon Gallagher has lived in Ireland, Singapore, England, Jamaica, Connecticut, Georgia, Indiana and Scotland. He’s been on trial with Blackburn Rovers, Newcastle United, Juventus and Marseille. He’s played professionally in Bishan, Atlanta and Aberdeen, and collegiately in South Bend.
To put it all briefly, he’s been a heckuva lot of places.
“I didn't really have much of a choice for a lot of them. I just had to kind of get on with it and get familiar with my new environment,” he said. “But sports always help. Soccer was always the first thing I worried about. ‘What team was I going to be playing on? What clubs did they have?’ And from there, you know, before you even joined a school, I already had some friends on a team.”
A lot of folks would be jealous of the 24-year-old Gallagher’s passport. That’s a lot of worldly experience. But none of that traveling matters if you don’t end up in the right place. Gallagher, on the move his entire life, naturally has a fear of getting stuck.
Goal: Jon Gallagher scores vs. D.C. United
In Singapore, that meant getting stuck in a league he had already outgrown. His dad’s job with Guinness had taken Gallagher there as a teenager. By 15 he had already earned a spot in the Singapore Premier League and by 16 he realized he needed better competition. He left his father and Singapore for England. And after a short time at a boarding school in Somerset and a few failed trials with different clubs, being stuck became a real possibility again.
The initial options in front of him were: Stop soccer all together and be a normal university student OR toil away in England’s lower leagues and possibly fade into obscurity. Neither seemed appealing.
“I'd seen so many boys go down that path, They just get lost and you never hear from them again,” Gallagher said. “They drop down a couple of leagues and they either get stuck down there or they just end up falling out of the game. When I looked at myself, I probably wasn't ready to be a professional. Physically, mentally, I wasn't at that stage.”
Gallagher’s dad came up with a solution. Why not try playing collegiately in the United States? He could keep playing and if all else failed, he’d at least have a degree. Gallagher pulled up the latest top-25 poll and started sending out emails.
Eventually, he found a spot at Notre Dame under coaching legend Bobby Clark. After four years, the Dundalk, Ireland native became the 14th overall pick in 2018 SuperDraft and headed to Atlanta. And then suddenly he was stuck again.
He spent the entirety of 2018 with Atlanta United’s USL team, unable to make the jump to MLS. But on the field, he’d moved. Somewhere along the way, the forward had been converted from playing on the left wing into a right back. Yet that adaptability didn’t increase his time with the MLS team.
Midway through 2019, Atlanta United came to him with an idea: Another move. A loan to Aberdeen.
Clark, who played over 400 games for Aberdeen, encouraged it. Stephen Glass, then his coach with ATLUTD 2, was a former Aberdeen star himself and also encouraged it. For Gallagher, any shift felt like a good one. Sometimes you need a change of scenery.
“I was getting minutes with the 2s, but I felt like I needed that next event. I didn't want to be stuck down with the 2s. Obviously, the goal at the club is to make it to the first team, whether you're an under-12 player or in the USL,” Gallagher said. “So when Carlos Bocanegra said, ‘Aberdeen have come knocking a few times. They've suggested a six-month loan. What do you think?’ I said, ‘Yes.’”
Gallagher showed up at Aberdeen in shape. He’d been in the middle of a season rather than waiting through the offseason like his new teammates. When Aberdeen’s next game arrived, he found a place in the Reds’ starting lineup. It just so happened that their first game was a Europa League match. In the span of a few weeks, he’d gone from USL to one of Europe’s biggest competitions.
But what’s a new set of circumstances to someone whose life has been a slideshow of consistently changing circumstances? Gallagher won Man of the Match.
That earned him more minutes. Those minutes earned his confidence back.
“I just felt like I lost touch a bit with the player that I was. I felt like I was playing a bit too rigid and not expressing myself. I would play with the 2s in Atlanta and then come up to the first team and every training I wanted to do something to catch the manager’s eye and it just wasn't coming,” Gallagher said. “Doubt definitely creeps in, for sure.”
With more starts and more solid performances at right back, Gallagher found all that again in the pressure-packed world of Scottish soccer. If you’ve spent the last year playing at Celtic and Rangers, plus in front of your own crazed home fans, not much fazes you. Especially if you’re playing well.
So when Gallagher returned to Atlanta and found himself in the right place at the right time – on a team now led by Glass as interim head coach – he finally got his chance with the first team and it didn’t seem like much.
“Stephen Glass said to me, 'You've spent a year away dealing with real pressure and real games,’” Gallagher recalled. “My first start against Miami, you're playing against zero fans. ‘You've played at Celtic Park and Ibrox where you can barely hear the guy next to you talk and you've done well. So just look at it like that.’”
Since then, Gallagher has started in five games and scored three goals, including two against D.C. United in last Saturday’s 4-0 win. In his first chance with the first team, he’s become its leading scorer. He even switched positions again and is back at forward. Would you expect anything less?
The 24-year-old’s one of a few bright spots in a dim year in Atlanta. There’s a verve and belligerence to the way he plays that’s far different from his steady demeanor. There’s a swagger to his movement that the team has desperately missed in 2020. After almost evaporating away with ATLUTD 2, a couple of moves have Gallagher trending toward becoming a favorite in Atlanta.
“I've just looked at it like, 'Right, you've got an opportunity here, go and take it. You've been at the club for two and a half years, so don't bottle it.' And that's the way I've kind of run with it. Show them what you can do and show them why Atlanta put trust in you,” he said. “You’ve found this spot. Now you just got to keep running with it and keep moving forward.”
Now that Atlanta has found a spot for Gallagher, the challenge will be to get him to hang around for a few years. He doesn’t get stuck in one place for long.