And there have been the little moments where the 18-year-old has shown that he is learning how to use his big, Josh Sargent-like body to fulfill his role as a hold-up striker.
“I think my confidence has been through the roof from training sessions through game day,” Conway said. “I think I had a point to prove. This is an important season for me. There’s a lot of decisions coming up I have to make. I want my soccer to be my decision-maker.”
Conway, who signed an Atlanta United 2 contract in Dec. 2018, is one of several Academy players or young, inexperienced professionals who are doing their best to show Tony Annan, Atlanta United 2′s interim manager; Stephen Glass, Atlanta United’s interim manager; and Carlos Bocanegra, Atlanta United’s vice president, that they have the potential to play for the MLS team.
Because of rules put in place to guard against COVID-19 by MLS and USL, there is no mixing of players between Atlanta United and Atlanta United 2 as there was in past seasons. The 20 field players and two goalkeepers on Atlanta United 2 are getting all the minutes in training and, arguably more important, in games against USL foes that have rosters filled with long-time pros and former MLS players. The average age of Atlanta United 2′s starting lineup is less than 21 years old.
“If you look at lineups, you see guys who have been in the league for a long time,” Conway said. “And then you see an Atlanta United 2 team with such a young age. They think it will be though for kids to play against men. But all these other teams struggle when they come to play us. They think we are going to crawl up in a ball just because we are young. We can really play.”
And the games are non-stop. The team will play Charleston on Saturday, at Miami on Wednesday and at Tampa Bay on Aug. 22.
“It’s important that we give these guys opportunities when they’ve earned it,” Annan said. “We keep driving that home. They very rarely let you down. A very young team. We are willing to risk a result so that they can play. You’ve got to be brave and take risks. Allow them to sink or swim. We are doing a good job of it.”
To put it another way, it’s about preparing Conway and his teammates to play against the Forrest Lassos of USL and Leandro Gonzalez Pirezes of MLS.
Conway has the potential to play in MLS, according to Annan, if he will take coaching, keep an open mind and put in the work. Annan knows Conway well because he has coached him since he was 12 years old as a player with the Georgia United.
The first thing Conway needs to do is to continue to score goals, according to Annan. He totaled five in 22 appearances with Atlanta United 2 in 2019 when he was 17 years old. He has three goals, which is tied for the team lead, in five games this season.
“Job is to score goals and take chances,” Annan said.
Another area of improvement, and Conway is fine describing it as a weakness, is staying positive when he makes mistakes. Annan said Conway can drop his head after committing a turnover instead of focusing on, “Where’s the next hole (in the defense), where am I chasing, where am I going?
“That’s just inexperience of youth and insecurities.”
Conway said he is working to maintain a positive focus, saying, “it’s what you do to get the ball back that counts.”
And then there are the little things that Annan said Conway must work on, areas that likely will need developing throughout a career: hold-up play (he’s won nine of 24 aerial duels), attacking spaces, bringing teammates into the play.
Conway’s focus and goal is to earn a Homegrown deal with Atlanta United. If not, because he has an English passport in addition to a U.S. passport, there may be opportunities across the Atlantic.
“As a young player playing in these games right now, it’s only making it better at the next level,” he said. “It’s not the last step for me. I have many more doors to open. I’m excited for the future.”
Atlanta United 2 forward Jackson Conway dribbles the ball during the first half of the USL match against Memphis 901 FC at Fifth-Third Bank Stadium in Kennesaw, Georgia, on Saturday July 18, 2020. (Photo by Dakota Williams/Atlanta United)
Credit: Dakota Williams/Atlanta United
Credit: Dakota Williams/Atlanta United