The Tacoma Stars are known for their youth and local ties, with most players coming to the Stars having experience playing for teams in the Washington Indoor Soccer League, the United Soccer League, or the Premier Development League (now known as USL League 2, where the Sounders U23s reside). In addition, there are former Major League Soccer players who may be familiar to the local fans. There may not be anyone as familiar, however, as Sounders legend James Riley, who joins the Tacoma Stars this season.
The Colorado Springs native took the traditional American path to professional soccer, playing for Wake Forest University. After graduation, he was drafted by the New England Revolution before eventually moving to San Jose by way of expansion draft. He would continue to be familiar with the expansion draft, as he was selected for the 2009 season by the sparkling new Seattle Sounders, where he would help the team win three consecutive US Open Cups and quickly become a fan favorite. He was then selected in the expansion draft again before spending a year each with Chivas USA, D.C. United, LA Galaxy, eventually ending his Major League Soccer career with the Colorado Rapids in 2015.
After retiring from the pitch, James was quick to move into his new career, spending two years as the Major League Soccer Director of Player Relations. Upon completion of that portion of his life, he moved back to Seattle to join the broadcast team for the USL Sounders FC 2.
However, he started to realize that something was missing. “It’s the competitiveness. Being in the locker room and training everyday with the guys is something I have missed since retiring. The camaraderie you get from going to battle with the guys is something you can’t mimic.”
James started getting back into competitive soccer, captaining the Cascadia team at the 2018 ConIFA World Cup in London, where they had two wins in the group stage and qualifying for the Round of 16. It was apparent that he wasn’t done, as on October 5, his signing was announced by the Tacoma Stars.
“I actually went to a game last season while I was in town. I had never been to the Stars before and they put on a show. An arena-type setting was different and I loved how fan-friendly they made it. The seed got planted that night. When I got the itch to play again, it seemed like the perfect fit. After I mentioned I was interested in playing again, (Team owner) Lane Smith and (head coach) Darren Sawatsky gave me a long runway to make a decision and have the time to get physically fit.”
Since deciding to return, he has received support from family and several former teammates, such as Steve Zakuani and Osvaldo Alonso.
Being both a seasoned veteran and a rookie who needs to earn his spot provides an interesting dynamic.
“I think first and foremost, I work for the respect of my coaches and teammates. Each training and game is a chance to do that and it’s important to demonstrate that professional mindset to the younger guys. You need to lead by example: how you carry yourself in training and games and way you take care of your body. I want to be a person they feel they can speak to if need be. I hold myself to a high standard.”
“Being indoor, it’s a different surface — but beyond that, it’s a different rhythm with different types of drills. There are a lot of nuances for me to pick up; the speed of the transitions, using the walls, the power plays (both plus and minus). Overall, though, the tempo is fantastic. Darren knows how to set the pace appropriately and the guys are fantastic - it’s very high level stuff. When we say that we’re out to win a title, we’re serious.”
The indoor game is going to provide a new challenge. Since the game is played within a hockey rink’s boards, it is significantly smaller, which allows defenders a chance to move into the attack.
“For me, it is defense first. Being an offensive force is winning the ball and moving it to the guys who can change the game quickly onto the correct foot, at the right pace, when they need it.”
With that said, James was quick to put his mark in the offensive side, scoring against Turlock Express in the opener after making a deep run and slotting home a pass from Nick Perera.
The first win of the season, as well as the time spent with the team in training and pre-season, has made Riley optimistic for this upcoming season.
“We have an excellent squad this year, one guy who always brings it is Raphael Cox he has a cultured left foot. Joey Gjertsen has a professional pedigree. Danny Waltman brings a different edge to the team, making big saves and then being calm in his distribution. Bringing calm to the pitch is the mark of a good goalkeeper. I think Nick Perera is fantastic - you can see the quality he brings. Matt Clare, Mike Ramos, Philip Lund... I could go on and on and on. We have a lot of good weapons and we want to put it together.”
While there is a long history of indoor soccer in the Seattle-Tacoma area, this iteration of professional indoor soccer is still relatively new, with the team entering the MASL in 2015 after the Seattle Impact dissolved.
“Very similar to the Sounders opening up in 2009, there were a lot of people who hadn’t gone to a Major League Soccer game yet and were on the fence. It only takes one game. There’s a lot of shared history between the Sounders and the Stars. Come out, you may just be hooked.”
The Tacoma Stars will face the Dallas Sidekicks on Friday, December 7, at 7:35pm at ShoWare Center in Kent. Tickets can be purchased here.