The Argus

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Blackrock striker set for big breakthrough in MLS

He's a striker from Dundalk with a record of a goal every 140 minutes over the past three seasons, but chances are you have never heard of Jon Gallagher.

All that is about the change in the New Year, though, with MLS clubs currently circling him to join their ranks.

The 21-year-old, from Hamilton Drive in Blackrock, has just graduated from the world-famous University of Notre Dame in America with a business degree.

While the Indiana-based university is better known for its 'Fighting Irish' American Football team, Jon has been making major waves for its soccer side, with 39 goals in 84 games since joining in 2014.

That record is even better when his debut season, which saw him limited to just substitute appearances, is omitted. It reads 36 goals in 63 starts. When you add in 15 assists and the fact that just one of his goals was a penalty you can understand why he is in big demand Stateside right now.

Jon's performances have seen him go forward for the MLS SuperDraft, which takes place on January 19th. That will give America's top clubs the chance to snap him up, with some of the league's leading lights understood to have marked him down as a 'must have'.

To find out how Jon has got to the verge of the MLS, you have to go right back to his roots.

Jon was the first of four children born to local couple Paul and Denise Gallagher. His father, originally from Kilcurry, and his mum, originally from Togher, still live in Blackrock. Their second child Stephen is studying in UCD, while younger siblings Mark and Sophia are both in Dundalk Grammar School.

Jon started out playing with Rock Celtic, but in order to progress his talent he moved to England to go to boarding school at the age of 15.

'I went to a place called Millfield just outside Bristol and did the equivalent of my Junior and Leaving Cert there. They have a good soccer programme and were able to set me up with a few clubs for a couple of weeks,' said Jon.

Amongst the clubs to take a look at the teenager were Juventus, Marseille, Newcastle United and Blackburn Rovers. Despite being asked back for one-month trials at the two English sides, no deal was offered to him.

Despite this setback, Jon - who was by this stage playing for the England Schoolboys U-18 team - was as determined as ever to make the breakthrough. It was the intervention of his dad Paul that then led to him crossing the Atlantic.

'I had been around a few academies, but none of them offered me a contract. That happens, but I didn't want to give up.

'It was then that my dad proposed the idea of going out to the States so that I could combine playing with studying, because there are plenty of places that offer both.

'My dad had seen so many try and pursue a pro career and it not work out and then they had nothing to fall back on, so he didn't want that for me and I'm glad now that he was like that. Within two months I had committed to Notre Dame and on Monday (December 18th) I graduated.'

While little is known about the standard of college football in America, Gallagher - who is back home for Christmas - said he was surprised at just how good it is.

'A lot of people here don't realise just how good the standard is in America. There are some serious academies over there, with massive amounts of money being pumped into them.

'I went over there not knowing what to expect, but having seen the standard in England it's right up there. When I was at Newcastle we played the likes of Arsenal and the standard was as good in America. I don't think it gets the credit it deserves, but there are a load of kids now playing and it's improving all the time.

'One of my friends (Jack Harrison), who was in the Man United academy and was released, went to New York City and is now playing alongside David Villa and has been called up for the England U-21s.

'It's just a different route for players who didn't get a chance or who weren't good enough at a certain stage of their career.'

Gallagher, who is 5ft 9in, ironically played in midfield or as a winger in his younger years before being converted into a striker where his pace and finishing prowess has allowed him to flourish.

Indeed, he was just two goals shy of breaking Joseph Lapira's record of 38 goals for Notre Dame. Lapira, whose injury problems meant he never fulfilled his potential and who retired in 2011 at the age of just 25, is best known this side of the Atlantic for being capped by the Republic of Ireland in a friendly against Ecuador under Steve Staunton in 2007.

While we know little here about college football, each year MLS clubs make 40 picks from the SuperDraft, with numerous websites suggesting that Gallagher will be amongst the most sought-after when it takes place on January 19th.

Jon said: 'It's a bit of a weird system, but basically all those in the draft have to play in front of all the coaches and then the draft takes place after that.

'You're not guaranteed to be picked, but I'd like to think I've a good chance. My agent would have a decent idea who is looking at me and he says there's teams in the top 10 picks interested, so all going well I'll be an MLS player next month,' said Jon.

Indeed, the forward turned down plenty of interest from across the Irish Sea to fulfil his American dream.

'I was supposed to go to Aberdeen this week on trial, but I decided not to. There were a couple of Championship clubs in England interested as well who wanted me to go on trial, but I just came to the decision that I have built my path in America and want to follow through with it. I didn't want to risk injury either, but hopefully that opportunity will always be there down the line.'

Gallagher has already had a taste of an MLS set-up, having trained with Philadelphia Union, Sporting Kansas City and Orlando City last summer, as well as New York City the year before that. He had a chance to leave to join some of them but opted to stay and graduate. Now he is looking forward to experiencing some of the best set-ups in America on a daily basis.

'When I was with Orlando I got to train with Kaka and at New York I was training with David Villa, Andrea Pirlo and Frank Lampard. It was just mad because I've always followed the Premier League very closely. I'm a Man United fan, but to train with Lampard was a surreal feeling.

'Pirlo and Villa have both won the World Cup as well, so it was a great experience.'

With a move to the MLS in the offing, Gallagher also admits to dreaming of a possible international call-up in the future, with the Republic of Ireland's striking options limited since the retirement of other MLS stars such as Robbie Keane and Kevin Doyle.

'I've had people from the FAI reach out to me to see where I'd come in with some of the youth teams. It would be a dream to play for my country. Even to get an under-21 cap would be great.'

For now, Jon will enjoy Christmas before returning to America next month to see exactly where he'll end up. Barring anything drastic, a top MLS club is sure to snap him up.

You might not have heard too much about Jon Gallagher before now, but all that is set to change. And change massively.