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Austin FC’s Jon Gallagher is thriving in move from forward to defender

Austin FC defender Jon Gallagher runs the ball past LA Galaxy forward Kevin Cabral during their May 8 match at Q2 Stadium. Gallagher, who has started seven of the past 10 matches at left back, is shifting to the new position after having played midfield or forward most of his career.

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For a player who has spent the majority of his career as an attacker in the midfield or at forward, Jon Gallagher has made the transition to being a defender look as smooth as possible.

Having started seven of the past 10 matches at left back, Gallagher looks to have locked down the position through his progress in training as Austin FC heads into Monday night’s road match against the Colorado Rapids. He had seen little playing time earlier in the season

“I’m just trying to grow, not get too far ahead of myself and keep improving,” Gallagher said. “Whether that’s staying out after training with coaches and working on my first touch or crossing with my left foot — it’s about getting more comfortable. I definitely feel like I’m growing in that role, and the coaches and my teammates are giving me that confidence.”

What makes Gallagher’s positional move even more impressive is the fact that he’s right-footed and he’s thriving in a spot on the field where some coaches would prefer a left-footed player. But Gallagher said he’s all-in on being part of the back line and everything that comes with it.

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“Even though I was a winger and attacker my whole life, I genuinely love defending now,” he said. “I don’t know what it is — maybe it’s the chip on my shoulder of always being a blue-collar, hardworking player? There’s a bit of pride to guarding the other team’s best player. I enjoy it, and maybe that’s why I get a kick out of playing defense?”

A native of Ireland, Gallagher also spent time in the United States, Singapore and England while growing up, eventually playing college soccer at Notre Dame. He was a first-round draft pick of Atlanta United in 2018 and was loaned out to the Scottish side Aberdeen for a season before El Tree acquired him in December 2020 via trade.

Gallagher scored the first home goal in Austin FC history during last year’s inaugural season, when his playing time varied drastically from match to match. But now he seems like a fixture in head coach Josh Wolff’s starting lineup.

“He’s done a tremendous job of growing into that (left back) role,” Wolff said. “He works hard after training, and our coaches do a good job detailing what the position is going to look like for each game. He’s done a terrific job, and speedwise I don’t worry about him as nobody beats Jon. His progress has been great, and he’s going to continue to better understand the offensive ideas. He’s been a real bright spot, for sure.”

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Having a background as more of an attacking player and being right-footed have actually benefited Gallagher some in his new role. His skill set might be a bit better than the average MLS outside back, and his previous attacking intelligence helps when Austin FC has the ball in the opponent’s half.

“Josh always comments on my ability to dribble out of situations and also use my right foot to my advantage,” Gallagher said. “When I’m coming into the field, I’m coming onto my stronger foot. It does give me options, and it’s about taking the game to the winger and making it difficult for him to defend me with our positional play.”

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Gallagher said El Tree’s other defenders have helped keep him in the mindset as part of the backline in case he might revert to his more attacking ways.

“It’s easy when I have (center back Ruben Gabrielsen) barking at me for 90 minutes,” he said with a laugh. “That guy doesn’t shut up. If I’m out of position, sometimes he doesn’t need to say something — sometimes he just gives me a look.”

Monday’s match

Austin FC at Colorado Rapids, 8 p.m., KBVO, 97.5

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