This March, for the first time in 12 years, James Riley experienced MLS opening day as a fan.
The longtime MLS defender spent last season with the Colorado Rapids, but didn’t have his option picked up by the club following their disappointing 2015 campaign. He spent all winter training for a potential return to the league in 2016, but didn’t land any offers this preseason.
And so he found himself in a bar in his hometown of Colorado Springs on opening day, taking in the slate of matches – and pondering his future – over a beer.
“I watched first kick for the first time – I think I started maybe 10 out of 11 first kicks out of the last 11 years – but just watching at a bar with a beer, I think that’s just kind of where I mentally turned the page,” Riley told MLSsoccer.com in a recent phone interview.
It didn’t take him long to land on his feet. Roughly two months after opening day, the newly-retired Riley, who made 251 regular season appearances with seven teams over 11 years in MLS, was back in the league. After an initial approach by MLS senior VP of player relations Lino DiCuollo, the 33-year-old was hired in May as the league’s director of player relations, filling the role vacated by Ali Curtis when he became New York Red Bulls sporting director in December 2014.
Riley is growing into the position, adjusting to life off the field and in the office all while learning the ins and outs of a new job. Once he gets settled, he’ll oversee team rosters and salary budgets, handle issues with player contracts and assist with the league’s competition guidelines, among other duties.
Of course, Riley wasn’t exactly hired for his ability to parse through a contract. A significant reason he was brought in was to bring a player’s voice to the boardroom. With over a decade of experience in the league, he understands the issues players face on the field, in the training room and at home, and hopes to be able to make their lives a little easier from his post in New York.
One particular area Riley hopes to make an impact in is in off-field development for current players. Whether it’s helping a 16-year-old Homegrown signing understand his bank account or assisting a 10-year vet plan out his post-soccer career, he wants to implement programs to make things smoother for players across MLS.
“The league are signing a lot of Homegrowns, and we need to make sure that we have things in place, programs in place that are going to help create and cultivate the players that we want from those signings,” he said. “An important side of that is life skills, basic life skills that either you learn in college or take 11 years to learn in the league. We want to kind of help expedite that process so that they can be the best pro that they can be. We want to be intentional about that, and I think that’s a huge step that the league’s taking.
“And I think it’s going to be important to have exit strategies for current players that have grinded through careers and given a lot to the league and kind of been silent heroes and the glue of the league,” he added. “I think that domestic players are sometimes kind of taken for granted, but for me it’s kind of the glue of the league. So we want to be able to have exit strategies for them, identify them for possibly executive track in a club, a coaching opportunity or maybe a broadcasting opportunity.”
Specifics of his role aside, Riley is thankful for the opportunity to continue to help grow a league that he’s been a part of as a fan, player and employee since its inception.
“I was a 12-year-old kid when the league started,” he said. “I remember watching the first game on television and being ultra-excited and going to the Colorado Rapids inaugural home game and wishing to one day be on that field. So to kind of have that come full circle I think is a role that’s important and one that I take seriously.”