PORTLAND, Ore. – Paul Riley isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.
He wasn’t before Hurricane Florence upended his North Carolina Courage, forcing the team to play what would have been its home playoff game more 2,800 miles away; and he certainly hasn’t been since then, as shown by the criticism of his retweets of fans’ shots at the media.
Riley was up to his antics again Friday, firing off a few barbs from the podium at a news conference ahead of Saturday’s title game at 4:30 p.m. ET against the Portland Thorns.
“Everybody is looking forward to this, to play in front of 20,000 screaming [fans] – booing fans for us, but screaming fans for the other team,” he said. “I think the team feels comfortable inside Providence Park, such as there is ‘comfortable’ in Providence Park, and I think we’re excited. There’s nothing like that eerie feeling when you score a goal in Providence and it gets very quiet, so we’re looking forward hopefully to that moment.”
Riley has a long history of playing the underdog card with his teams, even when they’re really good. He’s doing it again this year, even though his squad delivered the best regular season in NWSL history and is returning to the final for the second consecutive year.
“It’s nice to come in as the underdog,” he said. “We have our record. We thought we wouldn’t be the underdog, but I think with what’s gone on with McCall [Zerboni] getting injured and the hurricane and the home game getting moved, I think we’ve convinced everybody that it’s the world against us, and that’s the way we’re approaching the game. It will be like that in a cauldron of fire come Saturday afternoon. I think the players are ready for it, and it’s something they’re looking forward to.”
Riley even dropped a one-liner about his team that borrowed from a certain other soccer institution in Portland.
“You don’t get good timber in a place where there’s not a strenuous environment,” he said. “That’s how you build, and I think we’ve got really deep roots.”
Whether or not he meant the allusion – and whether or not you rolled your eyes reading it – he’s right in some ways. Zerboni’s season-ending elbow injury was a huge blow, especially with Tobin Heath and Lindsey Horan looming in the final. And it’s a safe bet that almost all the fans in the jam-packed crowd Saturday will be wearing Thorns red.
For as much as Riley puts the spotlight on himself, the ultimate message isn’t really about him. It’s about his team, and the message he sends by fighting his corner with such force. Ask anyone who knew him at the Western New York Flash, or at the Philadelphia Independence in the old Women’s Professional Soccer era.
Or ask striker Lynn Williams, who’s now in her third season under Riley. Her first was 2016, when Western New York won the NWSL championship in its last year of existence. The year before that, Williams was a rookie on a Flash team that finished seventh.
“That first meeting we had with Paul, he said, ‘I have the easy job: I just have to find out what each one of you does well and make sure you guys do it to the best of your abilities,’ ” she said.
Now they have not just that 2016 title on their résumés, but the last two NWSL Shields as well.
“Paul has shown us that he believes in us and he trusts us,” Williams said. “When you show your players that you trust them, in turn we started to trust him and know that he would do anything for us, not just on the field but off the field.”
— Jonathan Tannenwald (@thegoalkeeper) September 22, 2018
Crystal Dunn has known Riley since she was a kid on Long Island in his Albertson Fury youth club. She came back from Chelsea to play for him, and to help put the Courage over the top.
“I knew him more on a personal level than as a coach” back then, Dunn said. “Him coaching me this year was eye-opening: the way he cares about the team and he cares about each person as an individual, and not just a handful of individuals there. I think he really managed the team well, and it just shows. Our roster is so deep. We’ve been successful because we have all of these players that are committed to the team, regardless of their role.”
Portland Thorns manager Mark Parsons gets it, too. That’s partly because he’s pretty good at banter himself, but mainly because he sees the point of it.
“You’ve got to take a lot of what Paul says with a pinch of salt. He puts on a show,” Parsons said. “You look at the way his team has performed, he’s got those guys rallied and playing some good stuff in an incredible season. I’m sure he’s having some fun with you guys [in the media].”
Riley is having fun with his players too, and they’re having fun with him. For all the fiery rhetoric, it’s clear the Courage have the right mix of skill and charisma in their locker room — which is why even if they are the underdog Saturday, it shouldn’t be surprising if they’re the ones barking on the trophy stand after the final whistle blows.
Jonathan Tannenwald is the soccer beat writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer. He is covering the NWSL championship game this weekend for Pro Soccer USA. See more of his work at philly.com/jtannenwald, and follow him on Twitter at @thegoalkeeper.