- Doug Roberson The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Standing at the podium in Philadelphia after he was selected in the SuperDraft by Atlanta United, Oliver Shannon said his thank yous to past coaches.
He then thanked his sisters, grandparents and father.
It was his last thank you, spoken with a soft, Liverpool accent, that got the cavernous room’s attention: “To my mum, who I lost two years ago to a brain tumor: I love you, I miss you and keep watching over me. Thank you.”
Shannon’s mother, Amanda, died Feb. 21, 2016 after an 18-month battle against a Glioblastoma, an unfortunately common type of brain cancer.
He has dedicated to her his pursuit of a career as a professional soccer player. That pursuit is continuing this week in Atlanta United’s training camp in central Florida.
“I think about her every day,” he said. “Not something that ever goes out of my mind.”
Shannon’s journey from Liverpool to Atlanta started to develop in the offices of Everton Football Club in January 2014.
Shannon joined the Toffees’ academy when he was 5 years old.
After 13 years, at the age of 18, Shannon needed a better idea of his future. Typically, contracts with clubs are extended or terminated in April. Shannon and his family didn’t want to wait to know if the club was going to invite him to join the U-23 team, or let him go.
If he waited until April, and the club said he wasn’t in their plans, he would have been stuck trying to scratch out tryouts with clubs of various levels around England.
The Everton academy was deep with four of Shannon’s teammates playing on the England team that won the U-20 World Cup. Those players had received their pro contracts.
Shannon asked. He wasn’t in the club’s plan. However, the club spoke to him about playing in college in America.
“My game elevated,” he said. “I didn’t bother go on trial (anywhere), kept playing with Everton and got my confidence back.”
In August, he moved to South Carolina and enrolled in Clemson. Shortly after he arrived in the U.S., his mom was diagnosed with the brain tumor.
Shannon returned to Liverpool to see her. He wanted to stay with her. She forced him to return to Clemson, work on completing his degree and his aspirations to become a professional footballer.
“A very difficult time for the family, it still is,” he said at the draft. “She was our biggest supporter, still is.”
When he returned, Tigers coach Mike Noonan, who came from Brown, where he coached Jeff Larentowicz (who is now a midfielder for Atlanta United) told Shannon to watch film of the MLS vet because they are similar players.
Using his experiences from Everton, Noonan’s coaching and his own film study, Shannon was an excellent player for the Tigers. He scored 13 goals and notched 17 assists playing up and down the central midfield. Shannon was honored for his athletic ability (all-conference teams) and intelligence (dean’s list and ACC honor roll) several times in four seasons.
“You can tell, we trained together this morning and he was very good,” Larentowicz said Thursday. “Hard working, clean touches and a good attitude.”
Shannon seems to be fitting into Atlanta United through the first two weeks of training camp. The weightlifting work he put in at Clemson while growing from 148 pounds to 171 pounds is helping him deal with the physical demands of Atlanta United’s training camp.
As far as skills and tactics, he didn’t look out of place in a scrimmage Wednesday, playing as a holding midfielder with the second team against the first team.
“It’s been amazing,” he said. “Been a step up for what I’ve done the past 3-1/2 years, but what I did there has prepared me well for the standard here and the intensity and precision you need.”
Though the team sold defensive midfielder Carlos Carmona, it seems unlikely that Shannon will get a lot of, if any, minutes with the first team this season. The squad has Larentowicz, Julian Gressel and Kevin Kratz who can play as holding midfielders.
However, few thought that the player Shannon is compared with, Gressel, would be impactful last season. Gressel was named the MLS Rookie of the Year.
Shannon’s experiences are similar to Gressel’s: growing up in soccer academies in Europe before playing four years in college in the U.S. They are of similar size and age, as well. They played against each other in college.
“Just seeing him and how much he has pushed on is a bit of a benchmark for me,” Shannon said of Gressel. “If I can improve half as much as he has that’s a benchmark I want to work toward.”
Shannon will be motivated by his family.
A photo of his mother is the background screen on his cell phone. Last year he went out with friends to emotionally deal with the anniversary of her death. He hasn’t thought about what he will do, if anything, this year. Shannon said she had a bubbly personality. She may not want him dwelling on her too much. She wanted him to push on when he was at Clemson. She wouldn’t want him to stop even for one day now.
“Always positive when I think about here,” he said. “Always a smile.”