Atlanta United’s Jackson Conway more mature, more determined

Credit: Dakota Williams/Atlanta United

Credit: Dakota Williams/Atlanta United

His hair reduced to fuzz, Jackson Conway looks focused and sounds confident when discussing what is becoming a familiar opportunity for him at Atlanta United.

For the second consecutive year, he is the only healthy striker early in training camp. For the second consecutive year, he has a chance to show manager Gonzalo Pineda that he is worthy of consistent minutes in the regular season.

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Conway admits he wasn’t mature enough to appreciate the situation last year. He is different this year. There was no offseason for Conway. His parents and girlfriend were told that he would spend the offseason improving his fitness and his soccer knowledge. He would spend a lot of time at the training center. Being a pro and entirely focused on the job is why he shaved his head.

“I have a huge opportunity in front of me,” he said. “And I’m just excited to see what happens this year. Because, I mean, I had a good season last year. And that’s all I’m thinking about right now is can I take that form and keep it going with the big boys in the first team?”

Conway made three appearances with the first team last season for a total of 34 minutes. He had a few chances but couldn’t take advantage. That wasn’t the case with Atlanta United 2, where in 25 appearances he scored 11 goals, all from inside the box, which is a point of focus for Atlanta United this year. Conway scored in a variety of ways: four with his right foot, four with his head and three with his left foot.

Those 25 appearances increased his career total to 85 as a pro. Though only 21, Conway isn’t inexperienced anymore. And he certainly didn’t sound immature when speaking Wednesday about the work he put in with the help of the trainers, who he said also knew that he likely was going to be the only striker for a while, and the relationship he is developing with manager Gonzalo Pineda.

Conway said he and Pineda already have had a couple of discussions this training camp and that he thinks he is earning his trust.

“That’s kind of all I want,” Conway said.

But he has to take advantage of the opportunity. That’s the biggest hurdle for young strikers: if they want more playing time, they have to take advantage of the chances they are given. Conway didn’t do that last year. He said bouncing between the first team and Atlanta United 2 at the beginning of the season affected his confidence.

Conway said he became frustrated that he wasn’t getting more time with the first team. Pineda sensed it. They had a talk. Pineda told Conway that he was going to play the rest of the season with Atlanta United 2.

“I’ve never had a coach tell me, straight up, that we’re going to put you down because you need games,” Conway said. “You need solid minutes before you go out and play with the big boys. That’s what I needed to hear.”

Conway went to the 2s and showed that he could compete. He wanted to prove that he has the ability.

Now, he has another chance with the “big boys.” Conway compares his skills with another former Atlanta United striker: Brandon Vazquez, now with Cincinnati and who is with the U.S. men’s national team in its camp in California. Both are big. Both are willing to mix it up with centerbacks. Neither will win a sprint, but both have quickness and are learning the sharp, quick movements that can lead to goals. Conway’s teammates last season said he already is one of the team’s more accurate shooters during drills.

In addition to getting stronger, Conway said he watched a lot of film during the offseason of Tottenham and England striker Harry Kane and his movements to try to improve his craft.

“I may not be the fastest or the tallest, but I can be the smartest,” he said.

And Conway has one more element to his game: He doesn’t care if he has the ball. He said he is more than glad for Thiago Almada and Luiz Araujo to work their magic. He will stay high up the field, compete with the centerbacks for headers, and then find spots in the 18-yard box that he can attack in hopes of getting a return pass.

“They’ve told me multiple times that ‘we know that you have the skill set to play in this team’ and that’s what I need to hear,” he said of the coaching staff.

Conway’s first opportunity will come Saturday in Atlanta United’s first friendly at Chattanooga.

“These are the opportunities as a young player that you want to play in these (exhibitions) that are going to be coming up and to show the coaching staff that he deserves to be on the field,” teammate Brooks Lennon said. “And I think he’s been training well. He’s had the right attitude. And I hope he can do as best as he possibly can in those games.”

Conway likely will face competition. President Garth Lagerwey and Vice President Carlos Bocanegra have said the team isn’t going to start the season Feb. 25 with only one striker. The team reportedly is interested in Celtic’s Giorgos Giakoumakis.

Conway welcomes the challenge.

“I think it’s important for me to have someone to kind of scrap around with because you want them to see that I’m not just here for the fun of it, to be in this building, training with a bunch of good players,” he said. “I want to be here to play for the badge. And I don’t think they’ve seen that yet. So that’s kind of what I want to show.”

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Atlanta United’s 2023 MLS schedule

Feb. 25 vs. San Jose Earthquakes, 7:30 p.m.

March 4 vs. Toronto FC, 7:30 p.m.

March 11 at Charlotte FC, noon, Fox

March 18 vs. Portland Timbers, 7:30 p.m.

March 25 at Columbus Crew, 7:30 p.m.

April 1 vs. New York Red Bulls, 7:30 p.m.

April 8 at New York City FC, 7:30 p.m.

April 15 at Toronto FC, 7:30 p.m.

April 23 vs. Chicago Fire FC, 4:30 p.m., FS1

April 29 at Nashville SC, 1:30 p.m., Fox

May 6 at Inter Miami CF, 7:30 p.m.

May 13 vs. Charlotte FC, 7:30 p.m.

May 17 vs. Colorado Rapids, 7:30 p.m.

May 20 at Chicago Fire FC, 8:30 p.m.

May 27 at Orlando City SC, 7:30 p.m.

May 31 vs. New England Revolution, 7:30 p.m., FS1

June 3 at Los Angeles FC, 10:30 p.m.

June 10 vs. D.C. United, 7:30 p.m.

June 21 vs. New York City FC, 7:30 p.m.

June 24 at New York Red Bulls, 7:30 p.m.

July 2 vs. Philadelphia Union, 4 p.m., Fox

July 8 at CF Montreal, 7:30 p.m.

July 12 at New England Revolution, 7:30 p.m.

July 15 vs. Orlando City SC, 7:30 p.m., FS1

Aug. 20 at Seattle Sounders, 10:30 p.m.

Aug. 26 vs. Nashville SC, 7:30 p.m.

Aug. 30 vs. FC Cincinnati, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 2 at FC Dallas, 8:30 p.m.

Sept. 16 vs. Inter Miami CF, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 20 at D.C. United, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 23 vs. CF Montreal, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 4 at Philadelphia Union, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 7 vs. Columbus Crew, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 21 at FC Cincinnati, TBA