American soccer is a tight-knit community, James Riley says.
On July 7, when Steve Zakuani made his first appearance since suffering a horrific double-leg fracture in April of 2011, Riley had the game on DVR.
He would watch his old teammate enter the match against the Colorado Rapids at CenturyLink Field again and again. The response from the 39,060 fans in attendance that day when Zakuani subbed into the match in the 86th minute continues to give Riley chills.
Even though he has a very close relationship with the Sounders FC, he’s sure he isn’t the only one.
“I think it’s a closer knit group than people think,” Riley said. “Guys are definitely aware of what’s going on.”
He was right there with Zakuani when the injury occurred and was not far away for every milestone along the road to recovery. However, last November when he was selected by the Montreal Impact in the expansion draft, then traded to Chivas USA, he would have to watch the rest of the recovery from afar.
On Saturday, though, he got a front-row seat as Zakuani made his first start at CenturyLink Field since suffering the fractured right tibia and fibula that ended his 2011 season after just five matches. Zakuani started on the left wing and Riley was at the right back spot that he has manned in every minute of every match for Chivas USA this season, so they were sure to have more than a few confrontations throughout the match.
That is just fine with Riley.
“It’s fun to go against a good friend. I’ve seen him battle his way back and he’s worked hard,” said Riley, who is on his fourth MLS team in eight seasons. “I’ve always said that he has such wisdom for such a young guy and he’s been through a lot. He plays on the field with so much joy when he’s at his best.”
As happy as he was to see him back on the field, Riley also knew how difficult a task it can be to slow Zakuani down.
In the 55th minute, Zakuani got the best of Riley, ducking in behind him and chasing down a ball from Fredy Montero. It looked like Zakuani would have a goal, but Dan Kennedy came up with the boot-save.
“I knew I had to be tight on him. I didn’t want him to be able to get in and face me. He got in behind me in the second half and I thought he’d score – I haven’t seen him miss too many of those,” Riley said. “But that’s just a glimpse of what he can do. When he gets fully back … we’ve all seen him when he’s at his best and it’s an absolute nightmare.”
Riley, who started at right back for the Sounders in their first three seasons, was making his first appearance at CenturyLink Field in visiting colors. However, he has stayed involved in the Seattle community, stopping by the Renton/Skyway Boys & Girls Club before a US Open Cup match in July and coming back for the James Riley 7-a-side tournament last month.