“Lately it occurs to me what a long, strange trip it’s been.” – Grateful Dead
There might be someone on this planet that doesn’t like Ali Riley. Maybe she cut someone off in traffic somewhere once, and that person swears revenge. Maybe when she was playing at Stanford, she smiled a little too much and it rubbed someone the wrong way. But I’ve never talked to anyone who has a bad thing to say about Ali Riley. In fact, I’ve never talked with anyone who’s talked with anyone who’s been negative toward her.
Call it Six Degrees of lack of Ali Riley Negativity, I guess.
Riley grew up like any talented young soccer player in southern California, dreaming of playing on the biggest stage, which was within a stone’s throw of Riley’s home when Ali was just 11 and the United States beat China to win the World Cup in front of 90,000 people at the Rose Bowl in 1999. She continued up the youth ranks, good enough to get her a scholarship to Stanford, where she would eventually lead them to the national championship game in 2009.
Along the way, she got the attention of the national team, playing in the 2006 U-20 World Cup, and making her full international debut at a major tournament in Beijing two years later. Now a fixture with the national team, she might be its biggest star and with that comes all the publicity.
Of course, I’m not really fooling anyone reading this, am I? I mean, she has 60 caps for New Zealand by now, right?
Funny how life works.
When she was about to enter college, Ali’s dad John, a UCLA economics professor who grew up in New Zealand, decided to make a speculative phone call to people he knew in New Zealand to say his daughter might be able to help them if they wished. Riley had never been called into a youth national team here in the States, and by most accounts, had never really expected to. Making the U.S. national team is not as easy as it looks. Do the math of Division I college programs and quality clubs in the country and narrow it down to even a pool of a few dozen. Good luck.
But not long after the switch, Riley’s star was soon on the rise. There was her standout play at Stanford, and a switch from an attacking position to an outside back spot for New Zealand (that Stanford eventually did, too) that brought her to another level. Soon, she was WPS Rookie of the Year in 2010, a finalist for Defender of the Year in 2011, and on many (including mine) All-Tournament teams at the World Cup last year as well.
Then came Ali Krieger’s unfortunate injury at CONCACAF qualifying, which left the U.S. without a real option at outside back (Amy LePeilbet was on the other side). Obviously, connecting the dots, a lot of people turned toward Riley. How did the U.S. let her get away? Another dumb decision by the higher-ups at U.S. Soccer!
As I said, not really. Just a confluence of unfortunate (or fortunate for Riley) events. Riley still maintains that if she hadn’t made the switch to New Zealand, she would never be the player she was today, not necessarily because of coaching, but because of opportunity. So you can play the blame game all you want, but when a bigger organization (or country in this case) has more to choose from, some are going to fall through the cracks and get discarded and come up as hidden gems at a smaller organization (or company or whatever).
Ironically, Pia Sundhage found her new left back in a former college teammate of Riley’s, Kelley O’Hara, who also is making the switch from attacker to defender, and doing it quite well so far.
And so imagine the emotions going through Ali Riley as the teams line up tomorrow at 9:30 a.m. EDT and she looks across at all her friends on the other team wearing the uniform she dreamed of playing in as a little girl (well, maybe not that uniform exactly, but I digress). She’ll likely take one final look at O’Hara and smile, and the game will kickoff.
After that, it’s just a soccer game, one that Riley should play a major part in, as if New Zealand are to spring a massive upset, Riley might be the key.
If New Zealand somehow finds a way to shock the world? Well, we don’t want to think about that right now:
Here are five things to look for in Friday’s quarterfinal between the United States and New Zealand:
1) New Zealand will work hard in a matching 4-4-2 to the U.S., at least on paper
I don’t expect Tony Readings to change much of what’s he done to this point, remember the Ferns only lost 1-0 to Great Britain and Brazil, and in both of those games, the winning goal came late (in the case of Brazil, very late). The back four, really back five with Katie Hoyle chipping in as a holding midfielder, has been fantastic, led by Riley and center back Rebecca Smith (who also scored the winning goal against Cameroon). Hannah Wilkinson (if Readings goes back to her after a suspension, and I suspect he will) and Sarah Gregorius (if she’s OK, don’t be surprised if you see UCLA’s Rosie White in her place) will not bring much skill (at least at this level), but are going to run until they can’t run anymore, waiting for a U.S. mistake (which they got in a friendly, see No. 3).
2) New Zealand must starve Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan to death
Readings is a good coach, and he knows that if balls start flying into the box toward Wambach or into space to Morgan, or if his team starts giving away set pieces and corner kicks with any regularity, it’s only a matter of time before one of them ends up in the back of the net. So the first key is to shut off Megan Rapinoe, and he might have the perfect person to do that in the aforementioned Ali Riley. She’ll need help, and it will be interesting to see how far his outside mids (probably Hayley Moorwood and Amber Hearn, two veterans) come back to help. The problem there is that if New Zealand defends too deep and their forwards are on an island, the service may be able to come down the middle from Lauren Cheney and Carli Lloyd, and that’s not any better than the original scenario. Obviously, New Zealand won’t have too much of the ball, but the U.S. is not Japan or France, they need to have some of it because they won’t be able to sit in and keep them off the board for 90 minutes. Just won’t happen.
3) We’ve seen the blueprint for a New Zealand shocker before
On a cold February night in Dallas (it’s a chilly 107 there now as I type this), New Zealand took advantage of a dreadful O’Hara backpass early in the second half (Wilkinson scored) and – despite that being the only shot on goal for New Zealand in the contest – held the lead until the 88th minute when Alex Morgan scored to tie it, then won it in stoppage time as the U.S. escaped with a 2-1 win. Now the game was meaningless, and you’d think the U.S. would be a little more focused here, but the lineups will look remarkably similar when they lineup tomorrow (New Zealand may be exactly the same). One notable absence was Hope Solo (at least in the second half), and it was one of O’Hara’s first games at outside back. The U.S. played a high line in that game that New Zealand exploited a little, they’ll likely get the ball behind the U.S. defense as much as they can, which the favorites hope is not very much.
4) Maybe our first Dawn Scott mention
Fitness was a huge factor at the World Cup, and it should be even more so here at the Olympics, with a ridiculously tighter schedule to deal with. New Zealand is also known for its fitness, and I don’t expect them to just wilt, but they’ve had to work a lot harder than the U.S. did in their first three games, certainly defend a lot more, so that might be telling as the game wears on, and the U.S. can get a little more of the ball, and start the scenario that I described New Zealand does not want to see in No. 1: a bunch of balls flying into their box toward Abby Wambach’s head. It also seems like New Zealand has more injuries to key players, specifically Riley and Gregorius, that may keep them from being 100 percent. (Totally forgot that Scott is British, by the way).
New Zealand – having played the U.S. recently and knowing most of their players – won’t be scared when the game starts. But they haven’t beaten the U.S. in a long, long time (and only once ever), and the United States comes into this game with a ridiculous 21-2-3 record all-time at the Olympics. The battle in the friendly will give them a little confidence, but how much?
New Zealand will make things difficult for a while, but the U.S. will eventually break through and win somewhat comfortably. UNITED STATES 2-0.
Sweden vs. France (7 a.m. EDT) – So it’s Bruno Bini and France the latest to say they’ve been disrespected, which I think means everyone remaining in the tournament has now, right? Honestly, whatever works, but what would really get him respect would be to win this game. I’m sure he knows that, and it’s just posturing. In that way, maybe the 1-0 win over Colombia is a blessing in disguise. Sweden looked completely lost against Canada, and may be in some trouble here, although Lotta Schelin can change that quickly. FRANCE 2-1.
Brazil vs. Japan (Noon EDT) – As it always is with the Brazilians, your guess is as good as mine. Like France, though, they may have a right to feel disrespected, at least disproportionally to how they’re playing. Hidden in the purposefully not winning controversy with Japan is their sudden lack of scoring punch, just two goals in the group stages, both in the early stages of the first game. That might be reason enough to pick Brazil here. Almost. That and the Karma Police might be after Japan, too. DRAW 1-1 (JAPAN ADVANCES IN PENALTIES).
Great Britain vs. Canada (2:30 p.m. EDT) – There’s a funny scent coming from this game, isn’t there? Everything has been going so well for the British, this game will be sold out as well (possibly the last sell out they’ll see in Coventry in a long time, but that’s for another day and time), and people are starting to take notice of women’s soccer in England, a few decades after they should have. But standing in their way is a Canadian side that should feel confident and has one of the world’s best players due for a carrying her team performance on one of the biggest stages. I think Britain will get through, but it won’t be easy. GREAT BRITAIN 2-1 (et).