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NWSL preseason preview: Ali Riley on reckoning with her identity and inspiring Asian-American girls to play

Also, there is fierce intra-squad competition for the position of Best Aunt.

Canada v New Zealand: Group E - 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup France Photo by Naomi Baker - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images

Welcome back to our NWSL preaseason preview series! Today we talk to Orlando Pride defender and New Zealand women’s national team captain Ali Riley. Here, Riley talks inspiring other Asian players, wanting to boost anti-AAPI racism awareness, and how no one will watch Wandavision with her.

You can read our previous preseason interviews here:

Michelle Betos | Jennifer Cudjoe | Sarah Gorden | Tori Huster | Shea Groom | Jess McDonald | Abby Smith

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity. It was originally recorded on March 11. Also: Wandavision spoilers ahead.

All for XI: What’s the vibe like right now? You guys are in the middle of preseason?

Ali Riley: Yeah. It’s a long preseason, especially compared to last year, you know. Obviously, we didn’t play the tournament. But all the teams were coming in with that four week quick turnaround to try to get ready for the Challenge Cup. And this year, it feels like a much more appropriate length of time. But it definitely is long when you’re in the thick of it. Now you have this nice weather. I was lying on the grass today after training, just thinking how much I enjoy being with these women and being in the environment because it is fun, it’s inspirational, I feel super motivated to be at my best every day. And I’m so excited about this season and what we can achieve. And also you know that fans are gonna be there. So the vibe is so good right now.

AfXI: How does it feel for you personally, because like you mentioned, last year was weird. You had to do some back and forth and now you’re finally with the team and settled in and things look a little bit more concrete for the future.

AR: It’s so nice to just feel confident in that we have the season coming up, we’ve got this great tournament, we have the league, we have protocols in place. This pandemic is hopefully getting better, but it’s not going away. And I think with that knowledge, compared to last year, going in, everything was very, very blind. And being the first sport back, the first tournament, the first bubble, everything, which was an amazing achievement - again, sucks that we couldn’t be there. But I think now it feels much more stable and much more prepared for whatever challenges come our way and whatever happens. And you know there’s going to be COVID along the way. Obviously everyone is doing everything to try to avoid it, but this is kind of the new normal. And you’ve seen it in all sports and all around the world, even just looking at football in the Premier League, Bundesliga, men and women.

I think the league has done a really great job with communication. I think in Orlando, we have such a great setup in place. It’s so professional and it feels really safe. It’s kind of incredible to feel, when you see everything going on in the world, that we’re able to do what we love every single day, that we have this great season coming up. So it’s great, you can almost almost forget about what happened last season. And as I get to know the players, it doesn’t feel like we’ve only been a team basically with the players we are for a month and 10 days. No, it feels like we had that season last year how we got started. And I think the connections are there. There’s some faces that didn’t come back, some important players. But the girls, the younger girls are stepping up and we have some great additions and Alex [Morgan] coming back from her pregnancy. So it feels like it’s going to be a really, really positive year for women’s soccer in this country.

AfXI: That’s really nice. I was just thinking, I saw a stat that almost 20% of Americans have gotten already one shot of the vaccine. And that stat is going up every day and I’m like, it feels really different going into this season. It feels a lot more hopeful, you know?

AR: Yes, certainly. And I think as well, part of the pandemic and what we went through last year - of course, having COVID in the team and in the club was scary, but you’re also scared about your parents and your family and frontline workers. It takes just one layer of anxiety and stress off. Both of my parents now are fully vaccinated. Because a lot of us, we’re not that worried about ourselves. It’s like your children, or you know, we have moms on the team and our parents. With the vaccine even if we now as young healthy people aren’t vaccinated yet, it’s just still helps a lot knowing that it’s slowly getting through the country.

AfXI: You mentioned babies on the team. I did want to ask, it seems like some of you have gotten to meet baby Sloane.

AR: We have. I mean, we’re getting tested so often and we have our little bubble, so we are allowed to see her and to hold her and she’s so cute. And she’s thriving and she’s so healthy. And I mean, how could she not be so happy with those two mamas? I’m in awe of Ash and Ali and Alex and Syd [Leroux], but yeah, with this little newborn peanut, it’s brought so much joy to us. I’m sure it’s brought a lot less sleep for them. It just inspires you. And it’s so cool to see women able to have a family and do what they love. And this baby is going to have the most amazing life and it’s just why this team is so, so special.

AfXI: Are you guys already maybe competing a little bit for favorite auntie? I saw they did a little Instagram post with Marta. And they were like Auntie Marta, but there’s a whole team.

AR: Well we’re all aunties, but I think [Megan] Rapinoe with her goal celebration, I mean, none of us can compete with that. And I know Marta had gotten in with like a Brazilian jersey that was her first jersey. She got it even before they got sent the US one. I want to say that JJ [Julie Ertz] sent it to them. And I’m like, I don’t even have my own New Zealand jerseys. We can’t play as a national team because of COVID. So I’m so far down on the list of aunties, but I’m like, I have to be her favorite New Zealand-American-Chinese-Swedish auntie. No one else can claim that.

AfXI: Not to shift too much tonally, but you mentioned your parents with the vaccine, and I did want to talk about, you posted a little bit about stopping Asian American Pacific Islander hate because we’ve seen a spike in crimes. And I felt like that’s something that really resonates with me, because I’m Korean American. Not just for me, but seeing crimes against elderly Asian people as well. I’m really worried about my mom, because I can’t be there to protect her all the time. Obviously that’s something important to you. How do you feel about what’s going on right now? And what are you hopeful for to see things change in the future?

AR: This has been a really challenging subject to come to terms with myself, and also to have the courage to speak out about it. But I think it was the same as you. When I thought about my mom, just because she’s Chinese, being attacked, I was like, I really need to think about who I am, what is important to me, and how I want to use my platform to effect change. And I think last year, I was so inspired by especially the women athletes in the NWSL and the WNBA and how they were spreading awareness and fighting against social injustice and using their platforms in the Black Lives Matter movement. And it created a little bit of a confusion for me, like, if I speak about my experience with race is that taking away? Are people gonna think I’m trying to compare what I have experienced, or my mom, you know. And it took a while - obviously, now it’s a year later - and it took these awful, awful things happening, but I finally took the time to do the research. And being half and being able to pass as white and coming from a place of white privilege, having a white father, I was able to draw this out and not have this kind of reckoning until now. So I definitely have had that privilege. But I also am so glad that I finally felt strong enough to do something and say something and spread awareness and use my platform for this subject.

I hope that it inspires other not just players, but other people, other humans to do the same, whether it’s using their platform or having a conversation or standing up for someone. And I hope that with a new president that now we’ve seen how harmful language can be, and I hope with a new president that already with his initiatives, and his bomb ass VP, I know things are going to be better. And that’s also so so cool to see her there. But I hope that it inspires - not that I have a huge following - but just if anyone either gets inspired to donate, or gets inspired to speak out about their own experience, or if anyone just feels comfort knowing that there’s someone like them who has gone through something similar, has the same fears, if that can help anyone too, I’m so happy to be that person. I’m still working on how, and when, and what I want to say. And it’s, I think, gonna probably be a lifelong process. But I’m really happy to be in a position where I can share a little bit of insight and also my personal experience, and that people listen and it’s been a really, really positive response. And that also gives me hope. I think if we have hope in a time like this, where we have a pandemic, we have racism and hatred, which is also a pandemic, that any little bit of hope and positivity hopefully makes a difference.

AfXI: I think that’s really cool. This is not something I would have imagined that I could have had access to when I was a little kid watching soccer. I mean, there were some Asian American women playing. I loved Lorrie Fair.

AR: Me too.

AfXI: Now I see more Asian American Pacific Islander women coming in and playing. I think, especially within our community, maybe there’s some cultural biases at play. Speaking for myself, my parents didn’t like soccer because it couldn’t help me get into college, you know?

AR: Right! Well, as my mom said, why would you go to UCLA to play soccer, you should be going to Harvard and becoming a lawyer, a doctor. I definitely went through that same thing. And then she accepted Stanford. That was like, okay. And very worried about me becoming a professional soccer player, because she doesn’t see how that could be a successful profession. And I think that what feels the best is when a little girl will comment or send me a message on social media saying, like, it is so cool to see an Asian American playing soccer, and I’m like ahh! And it makes it all worth it. It gives me strength and courage.

AfXI: What do you think Marc [Skinner] and the team are asking from you, because you’re obviously experienced, I think you’re probably going to be that veteran presence in the backline. You know Marta, you know Ashlyn. How do you see your role on this team playing out this season?

AR: I think that Marc has very, very high expectations for me in terms of my leadership role, and ability, and also fitness and physical ability and having that tactical understanding of how we want to play. And I think it’s a little bit daunting, but at the same time, I wanted to come here, because when he laid that out for me, he also said I will give you the tools so that you can be that person and be that player, and also help me become the best possible fullback or wingback that I could be. And I love like that a coach will say that when I’m, I mean at the time, I was 32. But now I’m 33 years old, and that has nothing to do with it. And he sees that as a positive thing. Because as long as you can do the work, doesn’t matter how old you are. And he knows that I have lofty goals and ambitions and I feel a responsibility to be my absolute best as the captain for the New Zealand national team with a home World Cup coming up. So he understands all those things. But yeah, I think in terms of the results that the team has had in the past few years, he needs me to be a player that will help us win games and it’s my specific role to not let in goals and help with that backline.

AfXI: I just wanted to close up with some more rapid fire, more fun questions. What kind of cleats are you wearing? Do you have any you really prefer?

AR: I’m currently wearing Nike Tiempos, but I’m going to try some Puma Ultras. I don’t have a sponsorship right now. So it’s a little bit exciting to try some some differences.

AfXI: Maybe Puma can slide in there.

AR: There’s an opening.

AfXI: I’ve gotten a lot of Nike Tiempos [as answers]. Is it just really because Nike kind of swamps the market? Are they really that good?

AR: Well, it’s like the most traditional boot left probably, at least with Nike. So it’s not the like, super light synthetic. So if you grew up like me with a Copa and a leather shoe and something that’s gonna mold to your feet, then Tiempo is your best bet, but I would also say it’s probably like a defender’s shoe. Or like a midfielder.

AfXI: How many cleats do you go through in a season?

AR: Well, luckily, I was playing on turf before, but just probably two. I can really make them last.

AfXI: Jess McDonald says she goes through 12 in a season. [Riley gasps] I know.

AR: Oh my god. Then there’s something wrong I feel like.

AfXI: What are you watching or reading or playing right now?

AR: I am reading Glennon Doyle’s book Untamed. And let’s see, I am watching - I just finished Wandavision. I’m a huge Marvel nut.

AfXI: Sorry to interrupt, but after the end of that, I may ask for your Wandavision opinion.

AR: Oh, my god, when it started, I was like - what am I watching? I was so confused. I didn’t understand. And it was so funny seeing memes and stuff about it because it was exactly how I felt. Episode one I had it on but it was like, I don’t know what this is. Episode two I was still like, okay, I’m not gonna watch anymore. And then I was like, okay, and I watched it and I was like, oh my god. And it was so insane! And then now I’m like, I don’t know, I’m just so overwhelmed. And it just opened up all of these opportunities now, of course, for more shows. And I’m just like, she is amazing and what is gonna happen. But in the beginning, I can’t get anyone to watch it because they all say they watched just the first 10 minutes.

AfXI: Were are you satisfied with Wanda’s character arc in Wandavision?

AR: [long pause] I like the arc in terms of - I mean, I kind of like now having these characters who aren’t necessarily perfect. And then, she was interesting. And I liked that, especially having these female characters in the Marvel Universe having a lot of depth. So that was really important. But at the same time as a show, just the way it started, I feel like they’re gonna - I’m sure it’s doing very well - but I can’t get anyone I know to watch it because of how it started.

AfXI: Yeah, it is a hard sell. We have to be like, no, no, just watch the first four episodes and then it’ll really kick in.

AR: Yeah. And then I also have to be like, and make sure you watch to recap The Avengers Age of Ultron so you also remember all of these things and then of course, they use the X-Men’s Pietro. Like all of these things, you have to be kind of a diehard fan.

AfXI: Yeah. No one wants to do homework to watch a new thing.

AR: Right? But yeah, it was cool that she - I don’t know. I want to know more and what is gonna happen with Vision and she’s like, going to be able to recreate him and it was like a beautiful love story, and it was sad and but she’s so complex, and I think that’s important.

AfXI: Maybe this doesn’t quite apply to you guys in Orlando, but the player on the team who deals best with the cold and worst with the cold. Has there been any cold for you to deal with?

AR: Well it’s fun because in the first, it must have been in the second week, it was cold for Orlando. And me and Gunny [Jónsdóttir], who, I mean, she’s Icelandic, and I played in Sweden for eight years. We were wearing leggings to train, tights to training. And it’s so funny, the photos now, the media photos when they take it and post periodically. So when they post a photo now from back then I just can’t believe that me and Gunny were - it’s like 90 degrees now. But I swear to god, it was cold. And then best with the heat? I don’t know. I mean, Marta, nothing seems to affect Marta at all. She just dominated the fitness test, and seems to be honestly on another level. So she probably deals the best with everything because she’s Marta.

AfXI: If you had to sum up your 2020 in a few words or a sentence, if possible.

AR: It started out great. And then absolutely broke my heart and then ended up being an amazing year when I got to go back to Sweden and be with my partner and play for Rosengård. So I feel actually really lucky to have the ending that I did to that year.

AfXI: If you had to sum up your hopes for 2021 in a few words or a sentence?

AR: I hope for good health and safety and to make the Orlando women’s soccer community proud.

AfXI: And maybe more answers about what Wanda’s going to do now?

AR: And more Marvel shows.