Let’s go back to Saturday night at The Home Depot Center. I’m finishing up my early game story of Sounders FC’s 1-1 tie against Chivas USA and out of nowhere I hear a rousing cheer from the ECS section.
I look up from my seat in the press box, not far from the commotion, and what do I see?
Chivas USA defender James Riley (right) walking over to hang out with the Sounders fans for a few minutes. It was a pretty cool scene. And for those who don’t remember, Riley was Seattle’s first-choice right back from 2009-11 and voted the team’s Defender of the Year in 2010.
I caught up with Riley in the home locker-room — our first conversation in about seven months — and asked him what drove him to the away section after the game.
“I just wanted to pay my respects,” he said. “Again, it’s a place that was fantastic for me. I didn’t think it could’ve come at a better time in my career and my life. As special as it was on the field and off the field is something I’ll be able to tell my kids about. Obviously I still have close contacts up there, still attached to the community and I just wanted to give them my respect.”
Riley had the primary assist on the Chivas USA goal by Juan Agudelo (another former Sounder, Peter Vagenas, had the secondary assist). I asked him about getting on the score sheet in his first MLS game against his former team, but Riley’s thoughts drifted to an ex-teammate.
“I wish we could’ve held the lead longer, but obviously (Seattle is) a quality team,” he said. “David Estrada scored again. It’s unbelievable to see what hard work does, and he’s done it from Day 1. It’s good to see the fruits of his labor. He’s a good kid, a good guy and I’m very happy about that.”
So what was the game like? Different at all against the former mates? All the same once the game starts?
“Yeah, you just get into it,” Riley said. “I said (leading into the game that) it would be more fun than difficult. I didn’t think it’d be that difficult. I’d just get more amped up and more lively to play former friends and especially a place that’s been special and dear to my heart. Obviously you want to show well — that’s the big thing — but not put too much emphasis on it. I’m here, I’ve turned the chapter and have a good team here. We’ve added some pieces, so we’re looking to mesh that way.
“All in all, it’s a special day for me, for sure. Everyone in the locker room knew it, so it was good to see the guys go out and put in that effort.”
Riley has played all 1,170 minutes for Chivas USA this season. His two assists are tied for the team lead and equal what he had last year for the Sounders. His new team is 4-6-3, sixth in the Western Conference standings, one place out of a playoff spot.
“We’re trying to find and cultivate that winning culture again,” the 29-year-old said. “For me, it almost felt like an expansion team when I came in, to be honest, because we had some pieces that were in and out, and you didn’t really have that culture that was needed where you could step in and you know what needs to be done. It’s been fun trying to cultivate that again like we went through in Seattle. We’re still building the building blocks, we’re still building that foundation, and once we do, the sky is the limit.”
Off the field, things don’t sound so bad either.
“I’m living on the beach and wake up to palm trees and people playing beach volleyball every day,” said Riley, with a familiar smile.