Jon Conway’s best Fire memory might not have come during his single season in Chicago but it’s one that stuck in his mind from the infancy of his MLS career.
Brought to Toyota Park via a 2011 MLS SuperDraft trade with Toronto to deputize behind young starting goalkeeper Sean Johnson, Conway, who announced his retirement Tuesday after 12 seasons in MLS, recalled the way Fire fans supported the San Jose Earthquakes during the 2001 MLS Cup Final in Columbus.
As the story goes, the LA Galaxy had beaten the Fire in heartbreaking fashion, using a 98th minute winner from Mauricio Cienfuegos to defeat the side 2-1 in extra time during Game Three of the teams’ MLS Cup semifinal. With the final in Columbus being so close to Chicago, many Fire fans had already booked tickets to Crew Stadium for the next week’s championship and perhaps many more decided to go cheer against the Galaxy following the loss.
Into his second MLS season as the understudy to Joe Cannon in San Jose, Conway remembered the support his side received from an unlikely source that fateful November day.
“We came out onto the field, looked up behind our goal and it was just packed with Fire fans,” said Conway. We came all the way from the west coast and didn’t have many fans there other than family, but obviously because they lost to LA, they were rooting for us. It had a huge influence on the match and I remember after the game, as a group, we all went down and saluted the fans for cheering for us. I’ve always had a love for the Fire fans for that reason.”
It’s that first MLS Cup victory with San Jose, along with the one in 2003 where Conway recalled, “things didn’t work out so well for you guys,” that the Media, Penn product holds dearest over his 12-year MLS career.
Perhaps finding his best success with the New York Red Bulls from 2006-09, Conway went from Chivas USA later that season, to Toronto FC the next year before landing in Chicago at this time in 2011. The 6-6 backstop kept things light and jovial in the Fire locker room, appeared in six matches while serving in a supporting role for Johnson last season before the team made the 34-year-old keeper available for last month’s Re-Entry Draft.
Having passed through the first phase, the longtime MLS veteran was selected by Galaxy manager Bruce Arena who had previously coached Conway in New York.
“I spoke to [the Galaxy] a couple times and had a really good conversation with Coach Arena. I thanked him for picking me and for the opportunity he gave me in New York. After talking to him, it just felt like a good time to transition out of the game. A few other opportunities came after my option wasn’t picked up through the Re-Entry draft. At the time, I thought it over and felt that it might be a good time to walk away.”
A holder of an Economics degree from Rutgers University, Conway has long contemplated going into player representation, feeling the experience he’s gained while seeing the league take shape as invaluable.
“I have 12 years of MLS experience where I witnessed a disconnect between players, their agents, and the union. With my background, experience, and knowledge I hope to make a difference in player representation."
Aside from the experience he provided, Conway also brought a lighter side to the Fire locker room. One of the more fashionable members of the 2011 Fire, Conway made the bow-tie a popular post-game accessory. He could make a small amount of hair grease go a long way. He was even the club’s player representative during “Mo-Vember”, to help raise awareness of men’s health issues.
Perhaps my best memory of the big man was seeing him ride out of the Soldier Field locker room post-practice on a ten-speed bike, honking his horn as he worked his way up the parking ramp and out of the stadium the day before a friendly against Manchester United.
It’s that spirit that has also seen Conway approached about possible broadcasting gigs, something he says he’s, “looking into.”
He knew when to joke and he knew when to lead, playing the veteran support role well with Johnson and other young members of the Fire is something he took a lot of pride in.
“Sean being a young kid, I knew coming in that my role would be to help him progress and to push him. I knew it would benefit both of us. Looking ahead, he’s got an incredible opportunity for the future and I’m looking forward to seeing what he does. Beyond that, just recognizing the older you get, things change. I was happy to be part of the reserve team, helping those young players win the division this year. I take that away as well -- to be a part of the group and to be helpful all the way through.”
A longtime veteran, Conway was never flashy. He only appeared in 88 matches but perhaps just as important, he was one of the unsung players that dedicated his career to MLS – one that a young league built its back on. From his first season in 2000, he’s seen it transform from a fledgling organization to a force to be reckoned with in world soccer as well as the U.S. sporting landscape.
“Not long after we won MLS Cup in 2001, the league got rid of two teams in Miami and Tampa Bay. It was a huge body blow and there was a lot of uncertainty. We went down to ten teams, and now we’re about to start 2012 with 19. The amount of growth over those years has been tremendous and all the while, the league is getting better, the players are getting better, the development is getting better with the youth academies. It’s something to see where it was from when I started to leaving MLS now.”
Always humble, Conway wanted to depart by saying thanks.
“Thanks to my teammates and coaches, without them I wouldn’t be anywhere. I’ve made friends that will last a lifetime and they’ve been great. The cities that I’ve been fortunate enough to play and experience the life in. The teams and playing, was valuable, the experience of living all over North America was even more so. I’d like to thank everyone who’s been a part of it, and my family for supporting me throughout the years.”
Jeff Crandall is the Team Writer for the Chicago Fire. Follow him on Twitter @JefeCrandall.