Reigning USL2 national champion Ballard FC has announced the appointment of James Riley as the team's third head coach in as many seasons. Riley’s ties to the Northwest soccer community and experience coaching in the youth ranks make him an intriguing choice to lead the club through their first US Open Cup campaign and USL2 title defense.
“James is a total professional in everything he does and has tremendous playing and coaching experience to take our club to the next level," General Manager Sam Zisette told Sounder at Heart. "Coming off the back of a USL2 championship and into our first US Open Cup run, it is a big moment of growth for Ballard FC and we couldn’t be more excited to have James leading the team."
Riley brings with him a wealth of experience, not only as a seasoned MLS player with stints with the Seattle Sounders, D.C. United and LA Galaxy but also as a coach, notably in the realm of youth soccer. His coaching background also provides a direct connection to the player pool available at the USL2 level. Ballard FC draws heavily from local academies and colleges, and Riley’s connection to the youth soccer pipeline should serve the club well as they build rosters going forward.
The hiring also speaks to the club’s continued commitment to “hyper-local” soccer. A coach who understands the local soccer landscape and is focused on growing the local game is a logical choice for the team and the fans. A Colorado native, Riley lives in Seattle with his wife and two daughters and has stayed connected to the Sounders organization, the RAVE Foundation, and the youth soccer community.
During the coaching search, I spoke with Zisette about the unique challenges of finding the right coach for a USL2 side. Inaugural head coach Jason Farrell left for a full-time assistant position at Seattle University. His replacement, Ethan O'Neill, also left for other opportunities.
“The reality is that this is a unique job,” Zisette said. “And it’s a tough one to find the right person for.”
He noted that they are aware that for both players and coaches, the club is a transitional move. While their goal is to maintain as much continuity as possible from year to year, the reality is that success at the USL2 level means opportunities will arise elsewhere.
“You will see some teams bring in a coach from out of town just for the summer," Zisette said. "I don’t think that’s the right approach for us in part because we ask our coach to be a part of a lot of community events and other local engagements and in part because we really want as much stability as we can create.”
There are also strict NCAA rules about off-season contact with players that would limit roster options if, for example, a local college assistant wanted to coach at Ballard.
“The pool of ideal candidates is actually pretty small,” Zisette admitted. Yet on that day late last year, he admitted that they were very optimistic that they were targeting a few potential coaches that would fit the role perfectly. Among the types of candidates he specifically mentioned was a “high-level youth coach.”
That then-unnamed high-level youth coach turned out to be Riley, who is currently coaching at Eastside FC.
Photo Courtesy Ballard FC
Lamar Neagle, Co-Founder of Ballard FC, emphasized the synergy between Riley's track record and the club's overarching vision.
“His impressive track record both on and off the field aligns perfectly with our vision for the future of the club," Neagle said. "With James at the helm, we are confident in our ability to continue competing at the highest level.”
Neagle's confidence in Riley's leadership echoes the team's commitment to local soccer and serving an important role in player and coach development in the city, as well as engaging fans to build the game organically.
Of course, the goal is also to win championships. Ballard FC isn’t just a developmental club or a pipeline to professional soccer. The team wants to win and extend their season deep into the playoffs and other competitions like the U.S. Open Cup, which Riley has won five times in his career, including three with the Sounders before being left unprotected in the 2011 expansion draft and bouncing his way from Montreal to Chivas USA and ultimately D.C. United.
The Open Cup, which begins in March, will be a big test for the club and its new coach. It presses their roster-building process and drops Riley right into competitive play. And with the Northwest Division of USL2 adding the likes of Bellevue’s Midlakes United, West Seattle Junction FC, and Tacoma Stars the competition on and off the field will be intense.
Upon his hire, Riley said “It is a great honor to be chosen as the new Head Coach of Ballard FC. The club's impressive history of success and unwavering dedication to excellence for the community of Ballard and the Greater Seattle region is truly remarkable. With a humble and servant leadership approach, I am excited to lead this exceptional team into 2024 and beyond. I feel incredibly privileged and enthusiastic to contribute to the growth and success of this remarkable project.”
Ballard FC begins their Open Cup campaign in mid-March. The USL2 regular season begins in May, and Ballard will be playing the season at Memorial Stadium while their home stadium undergoes renovation.