Riley Jackson was in tears.
All her soccer dreams, even those that weren’t quite defined yet, were most definitely, surely, absolutely, 100% over.
She was 12 years old. She’d just been cut from her local Olympic Development Program tryouts.
Four years later, Jackson is one of the elite players in her age group across all of the United States, a key midfielder on the U.S. Under-17 Women’s Youth National Team at the Concacaf Women’s U-17 Championship in the Dominican Republic. She even had the honor of captaining the USA for its second group match vs. Puerto Rico, a match in which she had three assists.
The message, besides that setbacks always seem oh-so-dramatic, end-of-the world serious when you’re 12 years old, is that every player has a different path.
This is Riley’s.
Her parents met playing adult league indoor soccer (her mom was a college soccer player), and she grew up in the idyllic and somewhat sleepy town of Roswell, Georgia. For ten years she played for a small club in her hometown – Roswell Santos SC, where she was coached by her dad -- before moving to Southeast powerhouse Concorde Fire.
At 5-foot-8 and maybe still growing, Jackson is a long, lean, elegant midfielder, one of those players who seem to glide over the field rather than run and whose skills and vision ooze a high soccer IQ. She relishes being able to connect with her teammates, loves playing simple yet creative soccer and speaks eloquently about “playing the game in the future,” seeing in her mind’s eye where the ball needs to go and where her runs need to take her on the field.
For the Fire, she originally started with her own ’05 age group but soon moved up a year to the ‘04s, immersing herself in a soccer environment that emphasized technical play. She gives credit to her current club coach, Garvin Quamina, for nurturing that part of her game, but the overall competitive environment she found was one in which she felt a natural fit.
“I loved playing soccer with my local club growing up, but once I got to the Fire, something clicked,” said Jackson. “I really found myself thriving in an environment with players who were driven, and my passion for the game just increased.”
A couple of months after she left the field in tears, she got to try out for ODP again, and this time made the Georgia state pool. After joining the Fire, she attended a U.S. Soccer National Training Center when she was 13 but thought she had performed poorly. Turns out, she didn’t. Current U.S. U-17 WYNT assistant Morgan Church was the coach for the event and spied her talent.
In early October 2019, Jackson was one of 59 players – all born in 2005 -- called into her first National Team training camp with the U-15 WYNT in Kansas City, Kansas.
In March 2020, she was called into a 33-player U-15 WYNT training camp in Carson, Calif., that also included four of her current teammates at World Cup qualifying: defenders Savannah King and Cameron Roller, midfielder Mia Bhuta and forward Nicollette Kiorpes. She was thriving with her new club and getting National Team call-ups. Her confidence was growing, and she was off and running.
Then COVID-19 hit. Not only was youth soccer put on hold, but a tour to England with a U.S. Club Soccer Id2 team was cancelled. It would have been her first trip outside the USA. Despite the disappointment, she had set the table to be involved in this U-17 cycle. When U.S. Soccer resumed youth programing in October 2021, she was part of the U-17 WYNT player pool and attended all three training camps before making the 20-player roster for the Concacaf Women’s U-17 Championship. As it turned out, the Dominican Republic would be her first trip abroad.
When she looks back now at that tearful day at ODP tryouts, she smiles.
“I mean, when you’re young, you just don’t know what you don’t know,” said Jackson, who carries herself with a poise well beyond her 16 years. “Other than developing as a player and person, it is so important to embrace the mental toughness and the adversity. Having support from my parents, coaches and friends has helped. (U.S. U-17 head coach Natalia Astrain) always says ‘be a good person first before being a good player,’ so I always try to live by that.”
Jackson considers herself a perfectionist, an important quality for high achievers but also one that can make that mental battle even more difficult.
“Being just a little bit better every day is really important to me,” said the high school sophomore. “I’m very hard on myself, so I need to make sure that I don’t dwell on mistakes, even though I have trouble not focusing on that. But I always tell myself to be positive and move on.”
As she’s played up an age group for her club, she’s felt herself getting stronger and quicker with and without the ball. She’s had to in order to excel against older players.
“Everyone has their own journey, but I hope mine is less about the end product and more about the process,” said Jackson. “That process for me is living in the moment with the confidence that I will take advantage of all of the opportunities that will come in the future if I do the work and stay in a good place mentally.”
She’s certainly on the right path now and -- once again showing wisdom that belies her age -- seems to have a solid grasp on the tools for her personal and athletic growth.
“I think it’s really important to focus on being better every day, not just on being ‘the best’, which I think would put a limit on my development,” said Jackson. “Being the best means it’s tough to get better and can be frustrating if you’re not, so I strive to focus on short-term goals in development and hopefully that will lead to greater success in the long run.”
It’s a good message for the 12-year-old Riley Jackson, freshly cut from her ODP team, whose soccer career was not even close to being over. In fact, it was just getting started.