When Jon Conway suited up for Toronto FC in his one season with the club in 2010, the Reds were fighting and ultimately falling short of what would have been the club’s first playoff appearance.
Now, six years later the retired goalkeeper who grew up in Aston, Pa. is in his second year on the first team coaching staff of a club trying to make it back to and win MLS Cup for the first time.
“It’s been a nice run we’ve been on,” Conway said in a recent interview. “I was fortunate to have played here in 2010 and I fell in love with the city and the organization and the way the fans embraced the team.”
Conway made only one appearance in league play that season but played in several non-league games, including Canadian Championship and CONCACAF Champions League matches.
The now 40-year-old retired after spending 2011 with his fifth MLS club, the Chicago Fire, and returned to Toronto to coach in the academy before being promoted to the first team staff ahead of last season’s MLS Cup run.
“Everything was kind of here; it just wasn’t together yet,” Conway said of his short tenure with the club as a player. “To be a part of it now with the success - the fans have come out in droves and the way the media has gripped onto this team - it’s been great.”
Settled and happy as he is in Toronto - his wife is Canadian - Conway said he is still a Philly sports fan at heart. His present employer, however, presents some difficulty for his parents, who live a short drive from Talen Energy Stadium.
“My dad is at every Union game and has been a season ticket holder from day one,” Conway said, noting that conversations with his dad about soccer often involve a lot of discussion of the Union.
Conway’s mom is slightly more judicious - Conway said she wears both a Union and Toronto FC shirt to games between the teams, choosing which shirt to wear on top depending on the location.
Having a local team to cheer wasn’t a luxury Conway had when he was a multi-sport star athlete growing up.
“As a kid to go watch soccer we didn’t have much,” he recalled. “My parents took us to Hershey and Baltimore to watch the Impact and the Blast and we would watch Liverpool a lot on TV.”
Conway started his playing career at Aston Soccer Club and played at Lower Merion SC before joining FC Delco and heading to Rutgers for college after graduating from Sun Valley High School, where he also starred.
Lower Merion SC President Biff Sterla remembers how hard-working Conway was as a young player, recalling times when he’d stay late with Conway after training with the field lit by just the headlights of his mother’s car.
“I knew he’d be a very good goalkeeper but I really didn’t think he’d go to the levels he did,” Sterla said. “I heard that he really stepped up his training a lot at Rutgers where was a second team all-America selection. Being 6-6 helps, but it was his hard work in training that made the difference.”
Conway was drafted 28th overall in the 2000 MLS SuperDraft by the San Jose Earthquakes and got his first taste of the pros on loan with the Bay Area Seals in the old A-League. He went on to make 18 appearances for the Earthquakes over six seasons before moving closer to home to join the New York Red Bulls when the Earthquakes went on hiatus and the franchise was moved to Houston. He made 63 appearances for the Red Bulls over four seasons before heading back to the West Coast to spend a season with Chivas USA.
Though he’s not all that far removed from his career, Conway said a lot has changed between the MLS of today and the league he played in.
“It’s grown leaps and bounds in terms of the tactics of what is going on these days,” he said. “It’s a lot different than years ago when you would line two teams up and they would smash heads pretty much. Now you see there’s a lot more tactical savvy and we’re finding ways to beat teams through tactics that are repeatable.”
Youth development has also gone through an evolution.
“Now it’s a big business and these academies are cranking out players,” he said. “These guys who worked with me (like Sterla, Bob Rigby, Gordon Banks and Joe Waldron among others) were just giving up their time to do it. Now you’re employed to make guys better. There’s a lot more riding on it.”
The academy structure has also provided a pathway for coaches like Conway to move up the ladder, which he did when he was promoted from Toronto’s academy to head coach Greg Vanney’s staff in 2016.
Over the past two seasons, big name players like Sebastian Giovinco, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore have gotten a bulk of the attention in helping transform a team that only made the playoffs for the first time in 2015 into an MLS Cup runner up in 2016 and a Supporters Shield winner in 2017. But the goalkeepers have also played a key role in the team’s success as Alex Bono has developed into one of the league’s best at his position and his backup, Clint Irwin, is a seasoned veteran with his fair share of success.
Bono is in his third season out of Syracuse and has a connection to the Philadelphia Union through PDL affiliate Reading United, where he starred in the 2013 and 2014 seasons. Among regular starters league-wide this season, only Tim Melia and Stefan Frei have a lower goals against average than Bono.
“I’m fortunate to have two really good goalkeepers,” Conway said. “I have two guys that could be No. 1s a lot of places in the league.”
Bono made three saves in Toronto’s 2-1 win over New York Red Bulls in the first leg of the Eastern Conference semifinals on Monday. The second leg will be played back in Toronto today at 3 p.m.
A good result will put Toronto one step closer to the league’s ultimate prize, which Conway achieved twice as a player with San Jose in 2001 and 2003.