The Sounders FC starts each training session with separate groups warming up with games of 5v2 or or other drills that involve passing and footwork before the team gets together for an official start to training.
And while training may begin with a meeting with head coach Sigi Schmid each morning in Casa Grande, Arizona, where the team is under way in training camp, there is another unofficial signal that has come to mean that it’s time to get after it for the players.
A loud and boisterous shout from defender James Riley.
“Wooooooh!” he shouts over the din of players convening around their coach.
It’s a small gesture, but one that has also come to signal a coming of age for Riley.
Now in his seventh season in MLS and third with the Sounders FC, Riley is taking on a more prominent leadership role within the team as they gear toward their third season in MLS.
“You need a lot of leaders and that’s something that he’s matured into a little bit,” Schmid said, noting that role was filled by since-departed veterans Tyrone Marshall and Peter Vagenas previously. “James has stepped into that void a little bit.”
Riley is a consummate professional, putting in the off-season work to make him one of the more durable players for Seattle. Only Kasey Keller has played more minutes in a Sounders FC kit.
However, his leadership has always been a case of leadership by example. This year he is actively being more vocal with his teammates. He’s had to lean on all six of his previous seasons, playing with the New England Revolution and San Jose Earthquakes before coming to Seattle, to express that.
“I’ve been around the block and I’ve played with some tremendous players. I’ve got a toolbox of things that I’ve taken from Shalrie Joseph and Taylor Twellman, Steve Ralston and Matt Reis, the drive of Clint Dempsey … so many guys that I’ve had the opportunity to play with,” Riley said. “You take bits and pieces and try to blend them together and the overall method that seems to work is to set the standard on the field. You can be a quiet leader or a vocal leader, but as long as your standard is high people give you respect.”
The leadership has gone far beyond a vocal boost before and during training sessions - or even gathering the team together after training finishes. Always a hard-worker, Riley took his training routine to a whole new level this off-season and, staying in Seattle, he was able to do that surrounded by teammates, who took his lead and came into training camp with a renewed sense of optimism and urgency.
He was among a group that regularly found themselves training and playing together at the team’s headquarters at Starfire.
“We have such fantastic facilities at our disposal, it would almost be wrong not to use them,” he said.
That off-season excitement carried over into the start of training camp - which can often be tedious with all of the fitness training the team does over the first few weeks.
For Riley, the opening of camp in late-January was like the start of a new school year. The night before camp started, he set out his gear for the next day and had all of the new things for his locker all ready to go.
“I don’t know what it is, but there is definitely a different excitement. I was so eager and ready to get to preseason. I was salivating. I couldn’t wait,” he said. “The work that I saw guys doing in the off-season just made me that much more excited.”
On the field, only Kasey Keller has played more minutes for the Sounders FC as the ever-durable Riley. His training regimen is just one sign of the dedication he puts toward playing soccer.
“He’s a really good professional,” Schmid said. “He’s had to work for everything he’s gotten in this game so he knows the extra work is part and parcel to what you have to do.”
That extends off the field too, where Riley was the 2010 Sounders FC Humanitarian of the Year for his work with Renton/Skyway Boys & Girls Club, Susan G. Komen for the Cure, America Scores, Gilda’s Club and other community organizations.
When he learned that he would be protected in the 2010 MLS Expansion Draft - the first time he had been protected in an expansion draft - he was sure that it was a sign that he could elevate his work off the field even more, too.
“Seattle has been a wonderful city and a huge blessing. I’ve learned a lot about myself just being in the city and being able to volunteer and play for the Sounders. We’re going to try and do bigger and better both on and off the field in 2011,” he said. “My work in Seattle isn’t done.”