U.S. soccer player proud of Korean heritage

By Korea Herald
  • Published : Jul 16, 2012 - 19:25
  • Updated : Jul 16, 2012 - 19:25
Chivas USA player wants to play in K-League

LOS ANGELES ― James Riley is an American footballer of Korean descent who plays for Los Angeles-based Chivas USA of Major League Soccer, a professional league in the U.S.

A few months ago, Riley first ran into Lee Young-pyo, a South Korean footballer who plays for Vancouver Whitecaps FC in Major League Soccer.

“I addressed Lee by saying ‘My mother is Korean,’” Riley said in a recent interview with The Korea Herald Business, a Korean-language unit of The Korea Herald in Los Angeles.
James Riley of Chivas USA (Korea Herald Business)

When he heard that, Lee broke into a beaming smile and treated him kindly, he recalled.

Lee is a left back highly recognized for his speed and dribbling skills in the 2002 World Cup, where Korea reached the semifinals for the first time in the tournament’s history.

Twenty-nine-year-old Riley is proud of his mother being Korean. His dream is to play in Korea, her native land, and, needless to say, live there with her as well.

The right full back was born in 1982 in Colorado Springs, Colorado to a Korean mother and an American father. After they divorced when he was one, he was raised by his single mother in the U.S. His mother lives in Denver, Colorado, working as a hotel housekeeper.

His mother worked long hours to raise her two children by herself. At home, there was no one waiting for him after school. He said he has respected her self-sacrifice for her children since childhood. She would cook Korean food for him and his sister when she was home from a hard day of work, Riley recalled.

With quick reflexes, Riley liked soccer and basketball. But his relatively short height of 178cm made him give up his basketball dream. It was the 1994 World Cup soccer championship in the U.S. that motivated him to pursue a soccer career.

Due to financial difficulties, soccer was the only way for him to go to university on a full scholarship. After he entered Wake Forest University in North Carolina, Riley said he phoned his mother every weekend. One day he got the news that his mother had breast cancer. She had not broken the news to her son immediately, out of concern that it might prevent him from focusing on soccer. He said that he cried endlessly to see his mother lose her hair from chemotherapy after having one of her breasts removed.

Riley was drafted by New England Revolution in 2005 in the MLS draft for rookies. At the beginning of his professional career, he wanted to try for the K-League, but had to set aside his dream, because at the time the league preferred South American strikers to defenders.

In his rookie season, he was a versatile player who could step seamlessly into a defender or midfield position. He continued to keep himself in the mix in defense, starting in the majority of the games in 2006 and 2007.

Riley was selected by the San Jose Earthquakes in the 2007 draft and made 24 appearances for the team. He was then picked up by the Seattle Sounders FC in the 2008 draft. He stayed with Seattle through the 2011 season, helping the club win three consecutive U.S. Open Cup championships.

Riley got exposure in Seattle and was then selected by Montreal Impact in the 2011 draft. He was then traded to Chivas USA. In the Los Angeles side, Riley is one of only two players who has played in every single minute of every game in the 2012 season. The other Chivas player who has played in all 16 matches so far this season is goalie Dan Kennedy.

Every footballer wishes to make a World Cup appearance. It is the same with Riley. He is 29, old enough to know that the Brazil 2014 World Cup will be the last chance for him.

“It will be never easy to join a World Cup team because it is lined up mostly with footballers active in Europe,” Riley said. “However, if I try my best every moment on the field, the chance may come to me.”

“Another wish is to play in the K-League before it’ll be too late. Then, I would be able to live with my mother in Korea.”

He is an ace full back who scored five goals and made 16 assists in 176 matches, but his annual income is a mere $120,000, poles apart from salaries in other major sports. Though not much time is left for him to play on the field, Riley is not nervous.

“I want to become a coach or a soccer official after retirement. Even if I work in an entirely different field, I will try to help others, as my mother has taught me from my childhood,” he said. “I’m always proud of my mother being a Korean.”

By Sohn Kun-young & Park Hyun-jin
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(Korea Herald Business)