As we move into the Starting player recaps from the previous season, and their future in the league, we shall start with James Riley, Right Back. He is a fiery man to quote Mitch Levy (of course he was not referring to Riley). James' temper on the pitch is short, and he inspires passions amongst the fanbase. He was the first player to earn an ECS song based on his life as an MLS Sounder, he earned it by protecting his mates and by watching a match with the ECS while the club was on a road trip and Riley was nursing a Red Card.
But all the love earned in the world does not make up in the talent on the pitch, because love earned from pitch performance and Cups hoisted is what all fans and players want. Certainly we want good guys, but we are sports fans and the point of the match is to win. Riley is an offensive right back with adequate defensive skills, who was surprisingly left available in the Expansion Draft. Sounder At Heart author Graham and myself actually disagree on Riley's value for an MLS team, I see Riley as an above average MLS fullback who is decent in both offense and defense, and who allows Sigi's Arrow to perform.
Offense: James Riley plays as a wingback. He gets into the attack quite a bit. Recall that in the first third of the season he was both the right back and right mid as Brad Evans tended to tuck into the center too often. Riley's service is decent enough and has improved over the years. This season he set a career high with 4 assists on the season. Yes, MLS counts secondary assists, but I think this makes the stat more valuable, as it allows us a better image of the passing skills of more players. Riley will rarely get into the box. He is smaller, and his primary role is to prevent goals, but his speed allows him to run the right touchline and still recover for the counter.
Defense: Riley's defense strength is positional in nature. During a build-up he will occupy the passing lane so that the opposing player occupying their left elbow or wing will not get an easy pass. When said player has the ball Riley's on-ball defense is strong enough that he slows the opposition down so that the entirety of the Sounders defense is able to recover into their preferred formation. He rarely allows effective service (yes, I will be confirming this). James though sometimes reacts poorly, and challenges roughly, and the team must know that he will be unavailable for a few matches in a season.
Set-Plays: Being a smaller player on the pitch means that on the offensive set-play Riley is one of the safeties. He and Leo Gonzalez are usually set back from the action to prevent the counter. I would like to see Riley more often taking the kick when it is in the right side of the central third as that is when he inserts during the run of play, and it would allow another offensive player to be ready to score. In the defensive set-play Riley is generally not a factor. He is in a position not to win the header, but instead close off a short pass, or start a counter.
Defining Moment: Many fans would point to the Red Card incident against Los Angeles, or the Yellow Card against Chicago. They would speak of his bravery, his willingness to defend the team's honor. For me, the moment that indicated how good James Riley can be was against Barcelona.
James Riley was amazing. Sure he could expend more energy due to the Red Card, but he did it well. Whether it was on offense starting runs down the right wing interplaying with the Freddyain, or defensively making us forget that it was Thierry Henry who looked the least effective player for Barca. This was a match where Riley clearly got it. He was training against the best, and clearly showed that he is a premium Right Back in MLS. Friendly or preseason, it doesn't matter, Thierry Henry was a non-factor. As a leftwing in a 4-3-3 it was James Riley who shut him down.
The ECS disagrees, and here is their song about the Fiery Man
He came to us from San Jose, Riley, Riley.
We gave him $100 dollar bills, Riley, Riley.
He got a red card for his mates,
He smacked Magee up on his face,
James Riley Sounders number 7!
Plus/Minus - 15
Plus/Minus Per 90 - 0.58
Productivity in League Play - 0.15 (14th among 28 fullbacks/wingbacks in MLS with 900+ minutes)
Productivity in Non-League - 0.13
Ratings from Prost Amerika - 6.54 average (4th on team) - Riley also won Prost's Player of Year Award.
Short Term Peak - Riley will almost certainly be the Starter next year for both league and non-league play. The Sounders lack depth at the right back. If his vision and passing improve a bit expect a few more secondary assists. Riley will not be an All-Star (especially in a 3-5-2 formations), but is a valuable asset in a 4 or 5 man backline.
What do you think of Riley's future?