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Colorado Springs native James Riley rebuilds career with L.A. Galaxy

By: Joseph D'Hippolito Special to The Gazette
March 7, 2014 Updated: March 7, 2014 at 7:26 pm
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James Riley, shown as a member of D.C. Unites in this 2013 photo, was a soccer standout for both Harrison and Cheyenne Mountain high schools. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

CARSON, Calif. - At 31, Colorado Springs' James Riley is rebuilding his soccer career after two frustrating seasons.

During that time, the former standout at Harrison and Cheyenne Mountain high schools belonged to two teams in one day, played on two of MLS's worst clubs, saw his playing time drop to near-record lows for his career, and believes he experienced ethnic discrimination.

But Riley is getting a fresh start with Los Angeles Galaxy, which signed him after he tried out as a free agent.

"We're definitely going to need him," said new teammate Todd Dunivant, another Colorado native. "I've known him for a long time and he's been exactly what I expected. He's confident and he's consistent. He's earned a spot."

Riley relishes the opportunity.

"I'll grasp that and take full control over it," he said. "I never take good days for granted, anymore, and I never take wins for granted, anymore."

For his first seven seasons, Riley was a fixture with the New England Revolution and Seattle Sounders, surrounding one year with the San Jose Earthquakes. After helping the Revolution reach three MLS Cup finals, Riley twice won awards as the Sounders' humanitarian of the year.

Then in November 2011, the Montreal Impact selected Riley in the expansion draft and traded him to Chivas USA.

"Obviously, it was tough," Riley said about leaving Seattle. "But I looked at it as my work was finished there. I was able to do some great work and build some great relationships."

Riley led Chivas USA in minutes played in 2012 but experienced only his second losing season in MLS, as Chivas USA finished with the second-worst record that year.

The following season would represent the lowest point in Riley's professional career.

Part-owner Jorge Vergara assumed full control of Chivas USA and wanted to mold it fully into the image of the team he owned in Guadalajara, also nicknamed Chivas.

That meant forging a virtually total Mexican identity, since the team in Guadalajara for decades had signed only Mexican players. Before last season, Chivas USA signed more Mexicans and either traded or released non-Latinos.

One of them was Riley, the son of a Korean mother and an African-American father, who noted the personal irony.

"District 2 is probably 40 percent Hispanic," Riley said of the district that includes Harrison High School. "All my friends growing up were Mexican. I grew up with that type of coach and I grew up being the minority."

In January 2013, Chivas USA traded Riley to D.C. United.

"It was bound to happen," Riley said. "I think the writing was on the wall, so we tried to get a head start. The league helped facilitate that greatly, and my agent, as well."

In July, Riley told HBO's "Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel" that Chivas USA engaged in "a systematic expulsion of players that didn't align with what they were trying to do."

By that time, D.C United was in the midst of setting an MLS record for fewest wins, three.

"It just wasn't falling for us," Riley said. "It got on that slippery slope, and it seemed nothing was going right."

Riley's playing time became a casuality. The defender played just 1,760 minutes in 21 games, with 19 starts. Not since his first two seasons had Riley's totals in those categories reached such lows.

"I just think you put it in perspective. You're still waking up every day getting to do something that you love and making a living off of it."

When Riley's contract expired, he returned to Colorado Springs for what he called a "regimented off-season."

His routine included morning workouts with a personal trainer, evening soccer games and constant contact with his agent. Riley also transported his mother to and from her job as a housekeeper at the Broadmoor Hotel every day.

Riley was exploring options with other teams when Galaxy coach Bruce Arena called the defender's agent and wanted his client to attend pre-season training.

"I was ready," Riley said. "I was tired of sitting at home. It felt very weird not to be in pre-season. Coming in on a trial basis is something you don't want. But I jumped at the opportunity."

The rest, as they say.....

"He's made a good impression on us," Arena said. "I think he'll be a valuable player for us during the season."

Signing with the Galaxy represents professional and personal vindication.

"I'm fully comfortable with my abilities on the field and my identity off the field," Riley said. "Just be prepared for that opportunity. You never know when that is going to come."

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