Ali Riley: Soccer's International Pioneer
By Brian Price
Stanford women's soccer, the number one team in the nation, is rolling once again having started the 2011 season 11-0-1. Such dominance has become routine and is something that former Cardinal captain Ali Riley helped to establish.
"As freshman we came in and made a huge impact and really changed the program," explains Riley who, as an impact freshman in 2006, helped lead the Cardinal to back-to-back Sweet Sixteen appearances in 2006 and 2007. "Doing so helped get the next recruiting classes that have taken Stanford women's soccer to a top-four team every year."
In 2008, Stanford landed six of the top recruits in the country, including the number one player in the nation and current senior attacking midfielder Teresa Noyola. Riley, having cultivated speed and strong crossing abilities playing up front, was more than willing to move back to play defender, strengthen her footwork and accommodate incoming recruits who were stronger at the forward position.
"I want to help any team however I can. I started out playing midfield for club and high school," Riley said. "When I first got to Stanford they were in need of a forward so I moved up there and worked on my attacking ability, but was happy to move back to defense."
As a senior in 2009, Riley helped the Cardinal capture its first Pac-10 championship since 2002, an accomplishment she lists as her collegiate highlight as well as leading Stanford to its first-ever birth in the NCAA championship.
Now on the eve of an Olympic year, Riley is thrilled, once again, to represent New Zealand at the international level. Her father hails from New Zealand and therefore Riley, though born in America, was eligible to represent The Ferns in 2007 during the World Cup, as well as at the Olympics in 2008, and jumped at the opportunity to play internationally.
"I didn't know much about the New Zealand program [other than that they were willing to give me a chance to play]. I wasn't going to wait and see what happened with the U.S.," says Riley, who got the invite from New Zealand at the age of 16. "I had an opportunity to play international soccer and I had to go for it and I haven't looked back. It's amazing playing for New Zealand, being a pioneer for the sport and working to develop the national program."
The notion of helping teams to the next level has been a goal for Riley both as a Cardinal and as a Kiwi. She's proud of the significant improvement between the 2007 New Zealand World Cup team and, most recently, the 2011 team.
New Zealand hasn't qualified for the World Cup since 1991. In 2007, New Zealand failed to win a game (or score a goal). In 2011, they managed to tie with Mexico to earn their first points in a World Cup final. Riley assisted on the tying goal.
"It's hard being an underdog, especially having played for great a college team and two great club teams, but I've loved being a part of it," Riley said.
Now she's looking forward to the next Olympics as an opportunity for the Ferns to turn another corner. In the 2008 Olympics, New Zealand fared modestly going 1-2 and relied on Riley to play every minute of each match.
Midfielder Betsy Hassett, currently at Cal, and forward, Rosie White, currently at UCLA, are also on New Zealand's roster for the upcoming Olympic games.
Despite a great career at Stanford and numerous successes on the international scene, Riley describes herself as a "late bloomer" in the world of soccer.
"I honestly thought I'd go undrafted," she says. "Given how many great players are out there, I guess I doubted myself. I didn't watch with anybody because I thought it would be really embarrassing to be sitting with my friends and not hear my name called."
Riley's name was called - 10th overall to be exact - despite her initial doubts, and playing at the pro level has clearly led to great success. Now she is an inspiration to future athletes.
"Dream big. [Thousands] of little girls dream of one day saying 'Soccer is my job,'" Riley says. "You can play pro one day and until then, we'll keep doing all the hard work to make sure the [WPS] stays alive."
Currently a member of the WNY Flash in Rochester, N.Y., she helped propel her squad to its first league championship back in August. She was also a finalist for defender of the year in the WPS.
In achieving such levels of success, both here and abroad, Riley credits her time in Palo Alto as crucial to her development.
"College soccer was my entry way into an international and professional career," she says. "Everyone should be aware of the fact that hard work in college will be your opportunity to play pro or get to the next level of whatever you want to do."
But there is still much work to do in procuring a mainstream following for soccer in the U.S.
"Being a pro, for us, is not about the money. We play because we love it," Riley says. "As a female soccer player this is something that we all need to do: work to develop the game all over the world, build a fan base, and get ourselves out there. I feel like I'm doing that in two areas: New Zealand and here, in America, for the WPS."
The Cardinal continue play this Friday against USC, the Flash will resume play in April, and the 2012 Olympics are set to commence in London starting July 25th. Follow Riley on Twitter @RileyThree.