ORLANDO, Fla. — Ali Riley wanted to do this a long time ago.
The defender debated coming to the NWSL for years, ever since the league was founded in 2013. Each time, she was held back by the memory of the league’s precursor — the WPS, which folded dramatically in 2012.
The WPS was Riley’s home for her first two seasons as a professional athlete, which were stuffed with celebration as she racked up Rookie of the Year accolades and a pair of league titles.
But the league’s demise gutted Riley, ultimately marking the rest of her career.
“It took eight years to have the guts to come back,” Riley said. “When it was all taken away, it was a horrible, horrible feeling. … I wanted to keep getting experience in Europe, and my experience of the league folding was so traumatizing that I just didn’t see myself coming back.”
Now, Riley is returning to the United States to join the Orlando Pride. She sees it as a vital step in her career — entering her fourth Olympic year with the New Zealand national team at 32, Riley is seeking a challenge.
Why take the leap for a team that finished last in the league in 2019? For Riley, her decision came from the attitude of the team rather than the results of the past season — and, in particular, the feedback of Marta, a long-time teammate and a friend to Riley.
The pair first met in 2009, when Riley was a senior at Stanford and Marta was fresh off winning her fourth-straight FIFA Women’s Player of the Year award. They went on to win a WPS championship together with FC Gold Pride, but Riley said their friendship took off when the pair played together for FC Rosengård in Sweden.
Marta already spoke Swedish; in fact, she was more comfortable in the language than she was in English at the time. While offering pointers on the field, Marta also helped Riley to pick up the new language and culture. The pair went on to win three cups and two league titles during their three seasons together.
“Playing together, I saw it all — how hard she works, the music, the dancing, the laughing,” Riley said. “… For us to go [to Sweden] and grow as players and build careers there, and to kind of do that together, I think was really cool. And winning championships also has a good way of solidifying relationships.”
When Marta left Rosengård for the Pride in 2017, she encouraged Riley to give the NWSL a chance. But the defender still wasn’t ready to abandon the stability European leagues offered.
Over the years, she said Marta often “bugged” her about making the move, relaying her love for her life and her team in Orlando. When the star re-signed with the Pride after the team’s dismal 2019 season, something began to click for Riley.
For Riley, there’s always been a pull to the Pride. Initially, it came from New Zealand national team coach Tom Sermanni, who encouraged Riley to join the club when he was its coach. Even after his departure from Orlando, Sermanni continued to nudge Riley toward the Pride.
Each time she spoke with a Pride player, Riley was struck by the enthusiasm the team felt despite the results of the last two seasons. The defender felt the team’s hunger to redeem itself during the 2020 season and she was eager to join that environment.
She also bought into coach Marc Skinner’s focus on individual player development, a cornerstone of his approach since he took over the Pride in 2019.
The two spoke when the Pride targeted Riley last year and Skinner reached out again during the holidays. This time — bolstered by the league’s success following the World Cup and the experiences of national teammates Katie Bowen and Abby Erceg — Riley felt the timing was right.
Riley has been in Orlando for less than a week, but she’s already logged several training sessions, including an individual technical session with Skinner.
Even during that initial one-on-one session, Riley said the coach isolated several minute adjustments, helping her improve the slant of her hips and the weight of her passes to build pieces of her game.
“He knows he can push me,” Riley said. “He knows I can be better. I had that one-on-one conversation with him where he outlined what went wrong last year, what has to be better, what he would need from me, what he will demand from me every single day and how he can also make me better, and I’m gonna hold him to it. That was definitely what made me sign on the dotted line.”
Riley is aware of the challenge ahead of the Pride during the 2020 season. The team allowed a league-worst 53 goals last year, often fumbling away goals with muffed back-passes and miscommunication along the back line. World Cup absences and the cancer diagnosis of starter Toni Pressley only added to the damage.
Years playing in Europe also gave Riley confidence in a possession-heavy style of play, a direct reflection to Skinner’s image for the Pride. Although focused on the fundamentals of limiting goals allowed, the defender feels at home stretching up the flanks and using the attack to decrease the time a team spends defending.
With the entire backline now consisting of Olympic talent, Riley is firm in her belief that 2020 will be a different year for the Pride.
“There shouldn’t be any excuses,” Riley said. “I think that Marc really wants to tap into that mentality. I mean, the skill is there, the experience is there. So it’s, how do we work together? How do we all get on the same page to make sure that we’re not letting in goals?”
As she approaches her new club, Riley also takes pride in her role an advocate for women in sports. She bears this responsibility through the little details of the job — staying on the field to take pictures with fans after games and responding to comments on Instagram and Twitter. But the defender also voiced plans to invest in her new community through wider outreach, using experience to advocate for women’s sports through local clubs and schools.
She’s only been in Orlando for a handful of days, but Riley said she has completely bought in — to the Pride and to the city as a whole.
“I feel like now is the right time for me,” Riley said. “I want to be a part of building something here. I want to be a part of getting this team back to winning ways. I want to make a home here.”