Becoming Elite: James Riley’s Approach to Coaching
Table of Contents
A Life In Soccer
Former professional soccer player James Riley recently completed his first season of coaching in the Washington Youth Soccer Elite Player Development program, culminating in a phenomenal showing by his Boys 03 WA team at the recent ODP West Championships in Phoenix. Riley’s journey to coaching youth soccer might seem straightforward, considering that he has over a decade of experience as a pro, including 11 years in Major League Soccer. But for the Colorado native who has long harbored coaching aspirations, it’s the culmination of a long and circuitous journey through the sport.
Having been recognized as a special talent at an early age by nearly every soccer coach he had as a kid, Riley places special importance in the role of a coach in a young athlete’s life. “I grew up with a single mother and so, in some regards, the good coaches that I had were like father figures,” Riley explained, calling the power of coaching “transformational.” That power still resonates with Riley today, and clearly influences how he approaches his own burgeoning coaching career. “The coaches that spoke well into my life were very influential, I can remember them all today.”
The parent program of EPD, the Olympic Development Program (ODP), also played a major role in Riley’s development as a player—and as a person. Going through the program in Colorado gave him not only a platform to show off his ability, but also access to coaches that truly cared about his future. He said that he remembers every single one of his ODP coaches, but one early interaction still resonates even deeper as he looks back on his career. “I remember an experience where I had an ODP coach in Colorado who literally came up to me and said, ‘I think you can make the state team.’ That just gave me the belief,” Riley recalled. That coach gave him advice on how to make it to the next level, a cycle that started and continued all the way to the top when he was named a regional ODP All-Star and earned a spot in the national pool.
To The Pros And Beyond
Riley could tell that his soccer journey was headed to the next level, and the experience and recognition that he gained in ODP helped earn him a place at college soccer powerhouse Wake Forest University. After an exceptional collegiate career, Riley was drafted by the New England Revolution in the MLS SuperDraft, kicking off his professional career in a big way. He bounced around the league throughout his career, spending time with the San Jose Earthquakes, Seattle Sounders, Chivas USA, D.C. United, LA Galaxy, and his hometown club, Colorado Rapids. Riley describes his playing career like many do, in terms of trophies won—and lost: “I was fortunate to go to nine championship games, won six of them. Won one MLS Cup with LA Galaxy in 2014, three Open Cups with the Seattle Sounders, one Open Cup with the New England Revolution, and one Open Cup with DC United. I also lost three MLS Cups in a row with the New England Revolution.”
The Northwest, and the Seattle area in particular, clearly made an impression on Riley as he has since returned to the area to put down roots with his family to work as a broadcaster for the Sounders organization and pursue his dream of coaching soccer. He called it a “natural progression” as soon as his playing career started to wind down; even though he was working in soccer in various ways, it just wasn’t the same. “I worked at MLS as a Director of Player Relations for a bit and just wanted to be back on the field.”
This started with the creation of his own coaching business, JR7 Soccer, where he combines his decade-plus experience as a pro with nutritional science, psychology, and a myriad of other disciplines to train young players. “As I reflected on my career, I thought about what 3-5 things really helped set me apart or that I learned that I wish I had known then that I know now.” Riley eventually settled on three key areas that he would focus on not just in JR7 work, but in all of his coaching responsibilities: nutrition (“how to eat like a pro”), mental performance (“how to think like a pro”) and training habits (“how to train like a pro”). For individual matches, these are distilled into another three-step process: prepare, compete, and recover.
The best way to understand how Riley approaches each part of his program is to learn how he implemented them with his Boys 03 WA EPD team at the ODP West Championships. Preparation started from day one as he presented his players with a nutrition information packet during training sessions, long before the actual tournament. This was meant to encourage them to start following the recommended regimen to be ready for how the team would be operating in Phoenix. The basic guidelines for what, when, and how the athletes would eat followed this structure: “fill the tank, top off, re-energize, and recover.” As soon as the team arrived the day before the event, Riley did something that immediately set him apart from many of his fellow coaches: he went with the team manager to the grocery store to stock up on food and snacks that followed those guidelines. “We established that from day one, that we want to be fully fueled when we’re going in to compete so that we can be our best.”
Habits Are Key
It’s also not like this is some crazy, strict diet filled with bland or unsavory meals; Riley’s plan focuses on maximizing the nutritional and performance value from everything that his team put into their bodies. “We planned every meal, planned where we would eat and gave the boys a selection of what we recommend and what they should have, as well as what they shouldn’t have. We’d just be mindful of that and treat them like pros.” That last idea is what makes all of this so impressive about Riley’s approach: treating young athletes like pros. Many of Riley’s players are headed to college soon, and some have yet to experience a professional sports atmosphere. For those with aspiring pro dreams, this is essential in helping them prepare for the next level—and beyond. Riley doesn’t just show up, talk tactics and pick a team, then disappear until it’s time to play again. He’s deeply invested in preparing his players for their careers, just like the coaches who inspired him from a young age.
It’s A Mental Game
The second area that Riley focuses on with his players is one that so often gets overlooked in the face of all the other things that go into thinking about and preparing for a soccer match: mental preparation. “Before you walk on the field, you want to have the confidence of a lion. A lot of games can be won or lost before you even step on the field.” This area shows itself in multiple ways, from structured exercises and lessons that are easy to observe, to the subtle manner in which Riley interacts with his players on the training pitch and during matches.
The squad did affirmation exercises as a group during and between training sessions, focused on team bonding during meals and other down time, and pledged to stick to their plans and methods no matter the circumstances. “I have an affirmation video, just one on YouTube, an athlete performance-enhancing video,” Riley explained, “we implemented that because it’s something simple, they can take it with them, they can listen to it.”
In creating his program, Riley has been able to pull from so many resources that he’s come across in his career, including professional education and access to the vast sports science and psychology library at his alma mater, Wake Forest. But rather than just dump data or scientific journals onto his players, Riley has distilled it all through the lens of his own experience as he explains and demonstrates for his team. “We went in with the correct mindset, we went in with a great, great group of players. We told them we wanted to plan to win, prepare to win, and expect to win every single day. That’s an idea from Zig Ziglar. That became our model. The boys really bought into that.” This was the mindset of a professional, Riley emphasized to his players, and it’s key that every player is on the same page and trusts each other to be equally ready for every match.
Even though everything Riley does as a coach is positive in one way or another, it doesn’t mean he lacks the ability to discipline players for falling out of their habits or letting down the team. After one big win in Phoenix, the team was set to leave for a team meal and outing at a designated time. “We were waiting in the lobby and a few guys showed up and we were supposed to leave at 4:30 or something and we had guys show up at 4:35, so I lit into them,” Riley said. As a team, they needed to establish punctuality just like any other habits. They might have just secured a big win, but they needed to act like it was just another game and establish habits like they would any other day. Riley’s experiences with some of the sport’s best coaches and teams taught him the importance of that. “Fortunately for me, I’ve been with two of the greatest US Soccer coaches in history, Bruce Arena and Sigi Schmid. They ran very good ships, you needed to have order on your ship and build an environment for the players to succeed.”
On the Pitch, With A Little Help
The final area that Riley keys in on as a coach, while equally as important as the others, is perhaps the most difficult for some: training habits. Just as with nutrition and mental performance, Riley stresses that habits are absolutely key on the training pitch. To emphasize that need and do what he could to help his players get in that mindset, Riley upped his regular training schedule to two sessions per period when possible, rather than just one. Training for soccer is something that you can learn to do through reading and research, but it’s not the same as having actual experience in the game.
Riley not only brought his own professional experience to the EPD tryout, training, and tournament process, he also surrounded himself with three more veteran soccer pros as his assistants. First in was Steve Zakuani, who Riley’s players probably recognized from Sounders broadcasts but only a handful knew just how good the former Seattle attacker was. “He jumped in on a few sessions, so the boys were able to see his skill and realize they were playing with a former number one [MLS SuperDraft] pick and Arsenal youth academy player.” A player of his caliber upped the level of training immensely, and anybody who didn’t know his quality was introduced to it as soon as Zakuani touched the ball. Riley said it was the same with Lamar Neagle, a Washington native whose multiple stints with Sounders border on legendary. “He’s a local product, still the fourth-leading goalscorer in Sounders history, a lot of people don’t know that,” Riley said, “the names behind him are incredible and the names before him are incredible. To realize he’s banged in that many goals for the Sounders, it was awesome to be able to bring him in to share some words with the boys.”
Both Zakuani and Neagle were only able to help out in training sessions for EPD, so Riley turned to another former pro, Amadou Sanyang, to be his assistant coach. Originally from Gambia, Sanyang moved to MLS at a young age and spent time with Toronto and the Sounders, but his time as a pro was cut short by concussions. Nevertheless, Sanyang provided a different perspective for the players, while still having the experience and ability to coach at the highest level. “He brings another aspect and another vision to the pathway to becoming a pro. He helped me establish those habits,” Riley said of Sanyang. If four accomplished, talented former pros can’t help a group of aspiring athletes build and hold onto habits that will only serve to help their careers, who could?
Like everything else, Riley had a basic, yet extremely effective plan for picking his squad in the months leading up to ODP West. “I said on the day one of tryouts that I was going to use a simple rubric to rate the boys.” The first criteria seems obvious, but Riley stresses the importance of it: “first and foremost, I’m looking for players who compete.” This isn’t as tenuous as it seems; Riley might use terms like “compete” and “winners” to describe it, but this mentality shows itself on the training pitch. “At the end of the day, no matter what level you’re at, you have to be able to win your individual duels. Period.” Individual duels are the building blocks of a soccer match, so there are plenty of opportunities to observe them.
Riley’s second criteria is also seemingly obvious and easy to see, but only useful if you know what you’re looking for and how to process the information. “I’m looking for players that have good reactions,” he says. “Whether you give the ball away or you win the ball, you need to have good reactions in transition. We can’t have three seconds to reset, we need to be a team who has good reactions.” This ties in with Riley’s focus on mental preparation, because reactions might be physical, but they only happen when a player has developed the right mindset and habits on the pitch. “Your head should never go down, it’s always about the next play, the next play,” Riley says, emphasizing the mentality that he always drills into players. “Don’t reset, just go. I couldn’t care less about giving the ball away here if you’re trying to do what the game calls for you to do and what we’ve asked you to do and you have to give the ball away or have a bad touch, no problem.”
The final quality that Riley looks for when evaluating players is where he’s probably most qualified to judge, simply based on his experience: technical/tactical awareness and the relationship to physicality on the field. “We want you to play simple, get the ball and get it moving, play efficiently,” Riley said, “How we do that with our body shape effectively, how we affect the game in a positive way, whether it’s extra effort, an extra run in the box, hitting spots consistently.” This is a nuanced, experienced way of looking at a player’s actual soccer skills, taking it beyond a mere test of ability. You could even hear Riley using those points while coaching his team during games, always stressing for his players to play simple passes, keep moving, be positive, all of that flows naturally through his coaching. It was also through this lens that Riley could really see how special this journey would be: “I knew from the first tryout that this was going to be a very talented group.”
The Big Game(s)
Going into the actual ODP West Championships event in Phoenix, Riley explained to his team that, from the start, he and Sanyang would be treating them like professionals for the entire weekend. Everything they had done up to that point would be integrated, and Riley’s mantra of prepare, compete, recover, would be their theme for the duration of the tournament. “The entire days’ agendas were based around that concept and the boys seemed to resonate with that very, very well.”
The Boys 03 WA squad kicked off the tournament in dramatic, thrilling fashion with a 3-2 win over PNW rivals Oregon. After going up 2-0 early, they allowed Oregon to score two goals and equalize in the second half. What happened next was more than memorable, especially for the team. “We had a late-game winner, literally at the death, so that helped set the mood for the event. It was a big, big win.” Afterwards, it was immediately back to the process of recovery as they focused on nutrition and mental training—preparation for the next match.
Since they only had the one game on opening day, they were treated to their second matchup first thing the next morning. “We went down 1-0 to Cal South, but we were able to get two fantastic goals to end the game 2-1. Big, big win for the boys to beat a Cal South team, it gave them that belief.” Because it was so special to beat one of the tournament favorites in such a fashion, Riley saw a teaching opportunity as the team basked in the warmth of the moment. “I just let them soak it in a bit as we were doing our regen and drinking our shakes, which was mandatory. I said to breathe, take some deep breaths and soak this in. Look around, these are the results that you can get. It’s awesome when you can have every single person pulling in the same direction, wanting to compete for the same trophy for the same reason.”
That brings up another idea that might not be a specific, named pillar of Riley’s coaching, but it’s obviously deeply integrated into his words and actions: trust. When everyone is bought into an idea and can trust each other to follow through, big things can happen. “When I brought them in, before we broke, I said ‘we became a team today. Everyone look around and look into each other’s eyes. I told you yesterday that in order to earn the trust and respect of your teammates at any level that you play in, it’s how you prepare, compete, and recover.”
The End of the Road
After sailing 3-0 through the bracket stage to top the age group with a 2-0 win over Idaho, Boys 03 WA were feeling ready to take on the world as they headed to the semifinals. But unfortunately for them, day three was when their tournament ended. They faced Utah, and things started to go wrong from the very beginning. “Utah’s a good team,” Riley admitted, “but again we gave up an early goal and then we gave up the second goal off a bad turnover.” Chasing that 2-0 deficit with tired legs wasn’t easy, but Riley still had plenty of belief in his team as they fought hard in their comeback attempt. “The boys responded very well, cut it down to 2-1. We had a couple chances, I thought we had the better of the chances in the game but we were unfortunate not to finish them.” In previous matches in which they’d dominated, Riley’s players had some wiggle room to miss chances and make little errors without being punished—but not at this level.
Fortunately, the story isn’t about the loss. In Elite Player Development, winning isn’t everything. It’s about showing what you’re capable of, learning, improving, and becoming elite. Some coaches might lament such a loss, give a team talk, and end the weekend there. But not James Riley. For him, this was possibly the most important part of the entire experience for his players. “Win, lose, or draw, I told the boys to hold their heads up valiantly.” It begins with this simple ethos that allows the players to express the emotions they are obviously feeling, but to still be proud of their hard work and accomplishments thus far. “If you can leave it all on the field, if you did everything that you could do to prepare—that prepare to win, plan to win, expect to win mentality…you just let the chips fall where they may.” The result also didn’t change the post-game recovery plan that Riley and his staff had implemented. “I told them that still, the habits remain the same. Even though we just lost, get your nutrition shake in, get your banana in, get your KIND bar and your Gatorade. Handle it like pros. We lost, but you still need to recover your body and establish those habits.”
It’s easy for coaches to get just as caught up in the emotions of winning or losing as the players do, but what makes an elite coach stand out is how they respond when all eyes are on them. If you talk the talk of establishing and prioritizing habits, what does it say if you don’t stick to that mindset when things don’t go according to plan on the pitch?
This is what sets Riley apart from many coaches, because he knows that it’s not just about winning. The players were able to experience what it’s like to be treated like a professional soccer player, and that carried beyond the final whistle of the final match. After taking care of recovery on a nutritional and mental basis, Riley and Sanyang took their players on a final teambuilding outing to a local Top Golf. It was especially important as it would be the last time this group played together in the EPD program, and the bonds made and lessons learned will stick with the players for a long time.
Prepared For What’s Next
The final piece of Riley’s plan took place at the airport before it was time to depart; he made sure they had enough time to conduct pro-style exit interviews with every single player before they parted ways for the last time. “We gave each player five minutes of our time to let them talk about their experiences being with the group, what they felt their performance was over the weekend, and then we gave them rave reviews individually.” So not only did they get to talk about their experiences, they were also able to get some final notes from their coaches as they headed back to their clubs, high school teams, and beyond. “We gave them three things they did very well and three things to work on. As a coach, I’ve always wanted to do that. Some coaches do the inverse, where it’s [mostly] negative and one positive, mine are all positive.” What’s key is that, even though it was all positive, he still gave each player things to work on for the future without being critical.
After coaching his first EPD group this past year, Riley had only good things to say about his experience. “Very thankful for the group, it was a special group with great players, great young men that will go on to do big things and have great careers in college and at the next level,” Riley said. He continued, praising his players for rising to the level required of them throughout the process: “I told them that it was an absolute joy and honor to be able to work with them. They did everything that I asked, from the first training session to the last minute of the last game. As a coach, that’s all you can ask for. This experience was a very special one, something I’ll remember for a long time.”