Pro soccer player James Riley of Chivas USA reveals the secret of his success.
story by STEVE HAN
photographs by KYUSUNG GONG
In 2002, JAMES RILEY was a freshman student-athlete at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, still getting attuned to a new life far away from his mother in Colorado Springs, Colo. One day, he received a call from his mother that turned his life upside down.
“James,” she said, “I have breast cancer.”
Riley felt like someone plunged a knife in his heart. His mother, Korean immigrant Chong Horton, raised Riley on her own. She was all he had growing up.
“It was tough,” Riley told KoreAm. “I definitely broke down.”
He wanted to drop his athletic and academic aspirations to return home to care for his mother, but she convinced him to stay put. Meanwhile, despite her diagnosis, she continued to put in long hours as a hotel housekeeper to support Riley and his sister.
Mothers are wired to be that way. They’re immune to pain and fear. Those were the toughest days of his life, Riley admits. But his Wake Forest teammates, including fellow Korean American Ryan Caugherty, an adoptee, helped him persevere.
“We had a 6 o’clock practice the morning [after I spoke to my mom],” Riley said. “There was no way I wanted to go, so I told my roommate [Caugherty] to go ahead. But he just said, ‘There’s no way I’m leaving without you. We’re doing it together.’ So I went, and being with the guys really helped. That’s why soccer became so important to me.”
Since then, Riley’s passion for the game grew exponentially. He eventually realized his lifelong dream of becoming a professional player in 2005, when the New England Revolution drafted him in the second round of the Major League Soccer SuperDraft. In the subsequent eight seasons, Riley has been a starter for all four teams he has played for and also one of the league’s most consistent players at the right fullback position. Riley is still chasing his first MLS league title, but he also won four U.S. Open Cups (one with the Revolution and three consecutive with the Seattle Sounders from 2009 to 2011), the oldest soccer competition in the nation held annually in conjunction with the MLS season.
“It was fantastic,” Riley said. “You really can’t take away what it means to win a trophy. As a competitor, you want to prove that you can win at a high level. To do that four times in eight seasons was unbelievable.”
In his first season with Los Angeles-based Chivas USA this year, Riley again upheld his consistency by playing every minute of every match he played in, an astounding 2,880 minutes in 32 starts, the most among Chivas players.
“My biggest strength is consistency game after game,” Riley said. “Coaches want players who they can count on. It’s a growing process at first, but if you can be trusted with something small, you can later be trusted with something big.”
Riley is also one of the most out- spoken players when he’s on the field. As he learned back in college, Riley embraces the challenge of standing up for his teammates.
“There’s a common rhetoric used on the soccer field, especially when emotions are high,” Riley said, when asked about his habit of jawing at opponents and referees in games.
“Some guys here are playing for their jobs and contracts,” he said. “You want them to play in a game that’s fairly officiated. Whenever I’m getting feisty, I do it to protect certain guys on the field. It’s important to develop that theme to have guys fight for each other.”
It’s hard to find an athlete in this day and age whose exemplary behavior on the field is synonymous with his wisdom off the field, but Riley is a rare exception. He has been one of the game’s most giving athletes throughout his eight-year career. He devotes a significant part of his time to various charity events, such as raising money for the Boys & Girls Club by hosting youth soccer tournaments, as well as coaching the Special Olympics soccer team.
Riley says he is paying homage to his mother through his philanthropic endeavors.
“It all came from my mom,” Riley said. “A single lady from Korea, English as her second language … she was still the rock of our family. The best I can do is to be successful and reciprocate that same energy. She’s still the best person I know, without a doubt. I can never have a bad day after I give her a call. I even save her voice messages sometimes.”
Riley’s giving attitude on and off the field has been rewarded with a successful professional career, and more importantly, a mother who’s healthy again. Early detection helped Horton win her battle against cancer.
“Fortunately, my mom and I were able to get through it. Now she’s more vibrant than ever.”
After all he and his mother went through, Riley is now a prouder son than ever.
“I identify myself as a Korean American 100 percent,” Riley said. “As I get older, I find myself latching on to it more. It’s fantastic to have this kind of story, to be proud to say that I’m Korean American who grew up with a Korean mother who I love to death and wouldn’t change for the world.”
This article was published in the December 2012 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the December issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only.)