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The Lowdown: Ali Riley is coming home

Photo: Mark Thor/Orlando City SC

The Lowdown: Ali Riley is coming home

Ali Riley had been thinking about it for some time. When Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) folded in early 2012, she left the United States in search of a place to continue her professional soccer career.

Over the past eight years, Riley found herself living mostly in Malmo, Sweden, while rising to captain of the New Zealand national team. But in the back of her mind, Riley knew she eventually wanted a return to her native United States. Two earlier dalliances with the Orlando Pride did not lead to a deal. But Riley remained curious.

“I missed my family, and I’ve been keeping an eye on the league here,” Riley told The Equalizer. “Obviously, with what Orlando wants to build this season, and coming off not the best result, it just felt like this is something that I can contribute to. I can bring my knowledge and my skill set that I’ve had and also that I’ve acquired abroad. I want to make a home again in the U.S.”

Although Riley plays for New Zealand, where her father was born, she was born and raised in California and is thus a domestic player in the National Women’s Soccer League. Her choice of Orlando, a secret she said was getting difficult to keep ahead of Monday’s announcement, came as a surprise to some. But looking at Riley’s career, she has had a long-standing entanglement with Pride striker Marta. Their professional relationship dates back to Riley’s senior year at Stanford when she spent the summer playing for semi-pro power Pali Blues and would occasionally train with Marta and other LA Sol players. A year later, the Sol were gone and Marta wound up at FC Gold Pride, who had drafted Riley in the first round. At FC Gold Pride and the Western New York Flash — and then onto Malmo — Riley and Marta were teammates. Together, they lifted trophies.

Marta had been in Riley’s ear for a while about joining her in Orlando. But ironically, it was the team’s difficult 2019 that helped Riley turn a corner.

“It’s no secret that I’ve had some successful seasons with my dear friend Marta,” she explained. “And we’ve been in touch throughout this entire time and every time I see her or talk to her she says, ‘you gotta come; I love it here.’

“I think them not doing well and her still saying, ‘this is a good coach, this is a good team, we have something here,’ kind of spoke even more to Marc and his vision.”

Marc is Pride coach Marc Skinner. He took over in Orlando last season and, to put it mildly, things did not go well. But changes are afoot for 2020 and Riley is the second major defensive addition after Emily Sonnett, the United States international who was acquired in an early January trade with the Portland Thorns.

“It was really important that we got leaders,” Skinner said about a team that conceded more goals than any other NWSL team ever. “She’s a captain on her national team. We wanted to add the quality and the personnel on the back line as players but also as leaders.”

Sonnett searches for consistency, shows versatility with USWNT

Skinner said he sees Riley at her customary outside back position but added that she will help the side change shape as needed. He referenced the possibility of playing with three, four, or five defenders at any given time.

“I didn’t want to go into next season having to be very rigid as far as being able to change game plans during the game,” Skinner told The Equalizer. “I was quite frustrated by that last year. So, hopefully what she gives us is the ability to adapt quickly within a session. She’s literally a bullet. She’s strong, she’s quick, she’s aggressive, wants to attack. So we look at her in the more advanced role. But I think we have flexibility.

“When you’re looking at the right times for players to move to a club, it’s usually when they’re hungry, when they’ve got things to prove. And I think her time at Chelsea wasn’t what she wanted it to be. I’m hoping we’ve got a hungry player that can play in any of those positions and keep us flexible on the back line.”

For Riley’s part, she was also sold on Skinner’s vision for the Pride in 2020 so much so that she moved back “home” to the U.S. to a city still a cross-continental flight from her parents. (After nearly a decade in Europe, she added: “You don’t know how great it is to be only a five-hour flight away.)

“Speaking with Marc and to hear a coach that’s so disappointed with how the [2019] season went, but to still stay so true to himself and what he wants to build; and to hear how ambitious he is, how smart he is, how he wants to develop his players… it’s got such a good feeling.

“I played against Marc when he was at Birmingham [City] and saw what he did there and kind of how it’s changed since he left. I have a lot of respect for him. Anyone I’ve spoken to is saying this is a coach that’s going to push you. He’s going to make you better, but he’s also going to appreciate the talents you have and help bring that to this team.”

Riley said it is definitely nice to be earning more than the old NWSL maximum, but stopped short of saying allocation money was the only reason she finally came back to the states.

***

Ali Riley in 2011 with WNY. (Photo Copyright Patricia Giobetti)

Ali Riley holds a unique place in U.S. Soccer history. In the epic 2010 draft that produced, among others, five members of the 2015 U.S. World Cup-winning squad, Riley was selected 10th and wound up as the early leader in the group when she was named WPS Rookie of the Year. But three years before that, she was being overlooked by the U.S. youth system and so she decided to play for New Zealand.

“There was no choice,” she said of her decision to represent New Zealand from her teenage years. “There was one national team that wanted me, so I played for them. Life is short. You work hard every day and you make the most of any chance you get to do the thing you love. To be fortunate enough to be able to play professional soccer and be able to play for a national team, I was going to jump at any opportunity I have and not wait for another national team, not wait for the league to come back.”

POD: David Copeland-Smith discusses meeting, training a young, fiery Ali Riley

The interesting thing about Riley going to play for New Zealand is that for the greater part of the last half decade, outside back has been the area where the U.S. lacked the most depth. As Riley’s star grew in Sweden and she continued to be a prominent presence for the Football Ferns, many lamented how she was the one that got away at a position that may one day be the undoing of the U.S. (clearly not too big of an issue since the U.S. has won the last two World Cups).

“It’s such a huge honor to now captain the New Zealand national team and to come back and play in front of the people — I mean I’m flattered to think they think I would have had a chance to play for the U.S. national team,” Riley said. “To have that support even being overseas for eight years and people still writing, remembering Kelley [O’Hara] and I making those videos [with FC Gold Pride]. That is incredible and that’s the kind of support you see on the men’s side.”

Riley said that by the time the chatter began about her playing for the U.S., she was already into her second World Cup with New Zealand. She used the phrase “what a compliment” about the idea she was U.S. national team material, but said by the time WPS brought her game into the spotlight, “that train had very much left the station.”

And she relished watching her former Stanford and Gold Pride teammate O’Hara win two World Cups – “playing the position I do.”

***

Ali Riley returns to the U.S. pro game after eight years away. (Photo: Mark Thor/Orlando City SC)

Riley is 32 years old and faces an interesting year. Her new club team, the Pride, finished last in the NWSL in 2019. The national team she captains, New Zealand, is 2-19-4 in its history at the World Cup and Olympics. Once, at the London Olympics eight years ago, the Football Ferns made it to a knockout match, one they lost 2-0 to the United States. Expectations aren’t high for club or country — but Riley sees an opportunity.

“It’s a big year. It’s a lot of pressure for both teams I think,” Riley said, quickly taking more ownership of her situations than many would. “I see the talent here [Orlando] and hear Marc’s ideas just for the two days we’ve been training. It’s time to dig deep and to push. I think the sky’s the limit for this team. I don’t know the ins and outs of what happened last season. I think there could be something really special here. With the talent and the technical ability, cleaning up some individual mistakes, getting some fresh blood in here and improving the mentality and toughness. Obviously the goal is to win the whole thing, definitely make the playoffs. There’s no holding back.

“New Zealand, it is heartbreaking. These girls — we sacrifice everything. Magic doesn’t necessarily happen the first year a coach is in no matter how good the coach is. I think in our second year with Tom [Sermanni], the standard he holds us to is only making us better. But with our lack of resources and lack of friendlies we’re playing, it is going to be very challenging. But we have gotten out of the group at the Olympics, so that’s a mental boost for us. In the World Cup, we did such a good job against the Netherlands. You could see the potential there, but we just can’t score goals. So, for us, that’s the biggest thing.”

And then Riley deadpanned: “Maybe with Marta inspiring me, I’ll be the one scoring goals.” If Riley scored some goals, meaning two, it would double her output of one scored over her first 132 caps for her country.

She added that New Zealand is in a difficult spot because she believes it will take something special on the field to prod the federation or sponsors to invest. But Riley also stressed that the investment should come first to cultivate the results, not the other way around.

After nearly a decade in dank European cities, Ali Riley is excited to be back in the United States, and back in a warmer climate. Her partner remains back in Malmo but could soon be joining her in Orlando. He already has a pair of Pride shorts that Riley sent him upon her arrival in town last week.

“Everything that has happened in the last couple of days and weeks,” she said, “just makes me feel like I’ve made the best decision possible for my career and to be closer to my family.”

Free Kicks

— The Utah Royals named Craig Harrington head coach last week, replacing Laura Harvey, who left the role earlier this year to take over the U-20 U.S. national team. Harrington had been an assistant with the Chicago Red Stars, where he was praised by players for both his tactical prowess and impact on the locker room.

— Heading into the eighth NWSL season, the coach count looks like this: 8 men, 1 woman. The farthest that pendulum has ever swung the other way was 3 women from 8 teams. Make of that what you will. Or read John Halloran’s piece about it.

— Interesting that in hiring Harrington, Royals management appears to be getting more vocal about their displeasure with former coach Laura Harvey.

— Add Bev Yanez to this offseason’s retirement list. Another member of the 2010 draft class, when she was Bev Goebel, Yanez strung together a solid career, returning from Japan in 2014 a much better player than she left after WPS. Yanez has the dubious honor of being the only player to come off the bench in a professional U.S. women’s final and subsequently get sent off. She still won the title that year, for the 2011 Flash. In 2015, she returned from an injury and, with her first touch, scored the first goal in the Reign’s 3-0 playoff win over the Spirit. She intends to go into coaching and will begin by joining the staff at the Copa Soccer Training Center in Walnut, California.

— Saturday is Amanda Duffy’s last day as NWSL president. A new commissioner has apparently been identified. So when do we get to know about that person?

— Is the league waiting to release the schedule until after the CBS deal is locked and loaded? Or are they still working with CBS to create one that works best for both?

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