Meet the Open Cup Legend Lighting Ballard FC’s Way

Five-time Open Cup champion and former Seattle Sounder James Riley is the guiding light for Ballard FC’s debut outing in our historic tournament – and he’s bringing all his experience to bear for these hopeful amateurs representing one of the Emerald City’s most charming neighborhoods.
By: Jonah Fontela

The 2024 Open Cup will be a thrilling and nervy first for the young amateurs of Ballard FC.

So it’s lucky for them that the 41-year-old man with the whistle around his neck, tasked with guiding their way, arrives with a level of success in the U.S.’ oldest and most venerable soccer tournament that no living human can surpass.

“Five Finals is a lot,” Ballard FC head coach James Riley nodded when asked about the five Open Cup trophies he competed for – and won all of – with three separate Major League Soccer teams. “The competition and its history are just immense. And it’s been a pleasure and a joy to be such a part of it.”

Since the Modern Era of the Open Cup kicked off (in 1995) no player has lifted more than his five Open Cups. That puts Riley, a journeyman defender with an 11-year career in MLS, in the same conversation with the likes of old-timers and American soccer icons Billy Gonsalves and Bert Patenaude.

Many Favorite Cup Moments

“It’s a very good question,” Riley said, when pressed about which of his many Open Cup memories stands out brightest. “But those early Revs days were special.”

It’s no surprise that his first Open Cup triumph holds elevated meaning. He was still just 23, drafted out of Wake Forest in the second round of the SuperDraft, and playing for an astonishingly low salary at the New England Revolution. “We would bus down to these places that I’d never heard of for our Open Cup games and they would end up just being these massive events – with these great crowds of excited fans so happy to have us there.”

Riley (far left) after winning his first Open Cup with the Revolution in 2007

In Riley’s rookie year of 2005, the Revs played their Fourth Round game (a 3-2 loss to the Chicago Fire) in Ludlow, Massachusetts at Lusitano Stadium – once home to Gremio Lusitano and still home to 2024 Open Cup participants the Western Mass Pioneers. The 2007 Semifinal against the second-division Carolina RailHawks went to extra-time at Veterans Stadium in New Britain, Connecticut.

“What a team we had then [that Revs side was coached by former Liverpool defender Steve Nicol and boasted the likes of Taylor Twellman, Shalrie Joseph, Steve Ralston and Pat Noonan]. We should have won a lot more trophies,” remembered Riley ruefully of that outstanding era in Revolution history, where the club went to three MLS Cup Finals in a row between 2005 and 2007.

“Getting over that championship hump really meant a lot,” Riley said. “looking back on the celebrations in the locker room you just knew that it meant so much to all the guys – it was one of the biggest moments.”

There were other big moments. And Riley’s careful not to leave any out. 

“In Seattle, [then coach] Sigi [Schmid] really made sure we knew the Open Cup was a big deal,” Riley said of the three trophies he won with the Sounders. “I remember on that first run – the club’s first year in MLS – he came in before our first Open Cup game and didn’t say anything, he just drew a dollar sign up on the white board.

“We were an expansion club and a lot of us weren’t making much money – guys like Fredy [Montero], Ozzie [Alonso] and myself,” he said. “It gave us motivation in addition to the chance of winning a trophy in the club’s first MLS year.”

Riley won three Open Cups with with the Sounders in Seattle

That 2009 title kicked off three trophies in a row (plus another in 2014) for the Sounders – a club whose history is now indelibly linked with the U.S. Open Cup.

The last Open Cup Riley lifted, with D.C. United in 2013, taught him many of the lessons he uses today as a coach of young players – unpolished prospects with nothing but possibilities before them.

“It was the 100th anniversary of the Open Cup and we were bottom of the MLS table – and I do mean bottom,” said Riley of that famous underdog shocker D.C. United pulled off on the road against that year’s powerhouse side Real Salt Lake. “You talk about David and Goliath, I mean we were dismal underdogs – and no one gave us a chance of winning that one.”

Yet they did, 1-0 on a goal from Lewis Neal on the stroke of halftime. “It really is a very special tournament,” he said with a smile.

‘Blessings in Disguise’

Riley is a man with a keen eye and a clever mind. He’s someone you get the sense is always taking mental notes. He bounced around MLS, sure, but not because he wasn’t valued at the clubs he left. Quite the contrary. It was because he was the type of player who could slip into a new side without missing a beat.

“I’ve come to think of it as a blessing in disguise – bouncing around the way I did,” he said of playing for seven clubs – most of them shoehorned into existence in an era of huge MLS franchise expansion. “I got to meet seven owners, play with seven different groups of players,” said Riley who wore, coincidentally, the No7 shirt. “I had seven times the experience – that’s some serious relational capital to build on.”

Riley (third from trophy on the right) winning the Cup with D.C. United

These are all things that come in handy when guiding young players like the summer-leaguers of Ballard FC. No matter what the lore and mystique, most pro careers – for those lucky enough to have them – bring their fair share of unwanted moves and unpleasant surprises.

Maybe you think Ballard FC – the ambitious USL League Two club making a mark in Seattle’s most fashionable neighborhood – simply tapped Riley for his Open Cup star power and profile in the Pacific Northwest’s soccer scene.

You’d be very wrong.

Riley’s coaching career started long ago as a scholarship student-athlete. “It was your duty to be a volunteer coach, so my coaching career really started a long, long time ago.”

When Riley was drafted to play for the Revolution, on a $12,000-a-year development contract (in hopes of eventually hitting the big-time with a $24,000 senior contract) his teammate Marshall Leonard asked him if he’d be interested in some extra work.

“He [Leonard] had a connection with Coerver [the Dutch company famed for it soccer camps and skills training] and in those three years in New England I made more money coaching kids than I did playing and starting for the local MLS team,” smiled Riley, who went on to start his own training academy, JR7 Soccer. “Coaching allowed me to learn about myself – it made me a better player and better all-around.”

James Riley with all three of the Open Cups he won in Seattle

Riley set down roots in the Seattle area after his time with the Sounders – across Lake Washington from Seattle in Bellevue. And though he wasn’t in the market for a club coaching job, the folks in charge at Ballard FC were ambitious and hungry and not planning to take no for an answer.

With the club crowned national USL League Two champions in only their second year (2023) – and drawing huge crowds to the city’s historic Memorial Stadium – Riley became a natural target for Ballard FC. And when the team qualified for this year’s Open Cup, the very tournament that’s essentially a repository of Riley’s biggest successes as a pro, the stars were aligned in just that way where refusal wasn’t an option.

Riley Guiding Young Hopefuls

“In my 11-year career I was in a lot of teams that had a lot of talent, but, for whatever reason, couldn’t put it together,” Riley said, remembering his time with the likes of Chivas USA and D.C.. “That’s why I’m always telling young players, you can never take winning for granted. Sometimes you can have everything and everyone lined up, but it just doesn’t fit together.”

Ballard FC have “a target on their back” according to Riley as a result of winning the league last year. Even so, opening against the new local USL League One pros Spokane Velocity, his youngsters will be heavy underdogs. It’s a common theme in the Open Cup – and one Riley knows better than anyone.

“It’s a great opportunity to go out and play a pro team,” Riley said. “It’s not a friendly; it’s a meaningful game with consequences – and we’re in a no-lose situation as the underdog. We haven’t had a lot of time to train. Our goal is to go out and compete.”

It’s there that Riley – who’s seen all angles of the Open Cup – takes a pause: “I tell them to look forward to a wild game,” he smiled. “I’ve seen it all and, trust me, anything can happen in the Open Cup.” 

Fontela is editor-in-chief of Follow him at @jonahfontela on X/Twitter.