Source: Miami FC
IT WAS A regular Wednesday night.
Richie Ryan was getting his baby daughter ready for bed when he got a message from Nathan Walter – the assistant technical director of his NASL club, the Jacksonville Armada.
“He asked if he could pop around in the next hour with the manager, Tony Meola”, Ryan says.
“This was at 8 o’clock at night. I asked if everything was okay and he said ‘Yeah, we just want to talk to you about an opportunity’. So then I’m obviously thinking, ‘What the fuck is going on?’ Myself and my missus were sitting there wondering if something was wrong.”
Ryan, who won two FAI Cups during a three-year stint with Sligo Rovers, had only joined Jacksonville last December and was quickly handed the armband.
The side had struggled the previous season and Ryan’s influence at the Ottawa Fury had not gone unnoticed by the top brass.
Source: Fran Ruchalski
Having joined the Canadian franchise in late-2013, the midfielder was part of a difficult debut campaign. But, last year, he captained them to the Championship final and was central to their dramatic turnaround. He was named in the league’s Best XI and was in demand.
Jacksonville made him a decent offer, Ryan weighed everything up and agreed to move to Florida.
At 31, he was realistic. Three years left, maybe. It was all winding down. It was time to think about the future. It was a good opportunity.
“It was a really tough decision to leave Ottawa”, he says.
“That was home for me and the family. We had our little girl there and it will always feel a little bit like home with that connection. But a lot of things were happening at the club. Our manager was moving on, we knew different players were going to be leaving so it wasn’t going to have the same feel.
It’s football in North America – and in Ireland as well – where players are on shorter-term contracts so it tends to be that they go around from club-to-club in the league. When I took all those things into consideration, I spoke to Jacksonville and they’re an ambitious club with a very ambitious owner. They made it feel like it was going to be a good project and one that I wanted to be a part of.”
And now, here he was.
Just a few weeks after his wife and child had finally joined him in a new city, he was faced with a once-in-a-lifetime offer.
“The lads arrived at about 8.45″, Ryan says.
“Tony said, ‘Look, there’s no easy way of putting this but for the last two weeks, we’ve been knocking back bids from Miami and it’s got to the stage now where the owner is thinking about accepting what’s been offered’.
He said, ‘We’ve turned them away four times already and they keep coming back so it’s up to you now. We never thought it would get to this stage and that’s why we quoted them a ridiculous figure. We never thought they’d come back and offer it. We thought we talked them out of it. But they came back and offered this.’”
Ryan was more than a little taken aback. Before signing for Jacksonville, he had heard Miami were interested but it was just rumour. Nothing concrete. Now, they seemed desperate for his signature.
“It came out of nowhere for me”, Ryan says.
“I was kind of thinking, ‘Well, if there’s not going to be that much more on offer then I’d prefer to stay here because we’ve just arrived so I don’t want to be picking my family up and moving them again’.
I think the teams had been speaking to each other behind the scenes but I wasn’t made aware of anything. Everybody wanted to have an idea what was happening before they told me. Nathan said ‘You should go into your room and call your agent. He’s already spoken to Miami’.
In North American soccer terms, Ryan’s transfer is unheard of.
The reported fee agreed between the clubs is $750,000. To put that in context, it’s thought that Jacksonville paid Ottawa $50,000 for his services just a few short months ago.
Salary-wise, the numbers are equally eye-watering.
Ryan, as a captain and senior member of the Jacksonville dressing-room, was probably earning somewhere between $80 – 90k per year.
It’s claimed by some extremely reputable outlets that he’s set to triple his annual income at Miami.
It was a lot to take in. As his guests took their leave and headed into the dusky Jacksonville night, the surreal nature of the conversation he’d just had hit Ryan hard.
“I closed the door, turned to the missus and said ‘What the fuck has just happened?’
At 11am the following morning, Ryan was on a plane.
Two days later, he lined up in the centre of the Miami midfield as they picked up an impressive away point against the joint-league leaders Carolina Railhawks.
Still, the club are rooted to the bottom of the table.
And there lies the caveat.
From seven games, the brand-new franchise are still to win one. This wasn’t supposed to happen.
With Paolo Maldini as a co-owner and Alessandro Nesta as coach, the sprinkling of stardust had everyone expecting big things.
But from their last five fixtures, they’ve lost four. Just days before Ryan was signed, they were thumped 3-0 by the New York Cosmos in their own backyard.
Afterwards, Nesta snapped. Prophetically, he spoke of necessary changes.
“This was the worst game we played; and I am to blame, of course, because I am the coach”, he said.
“I have to rebuild the situation, the confidence, everything because tonight we touched the bottom. We didn’t score one goal, defense was no good, midfield no good, everything no good. We have to restart, and that’s it.”
But Ryan has been here before. And perhaps that’s another reason why Miami were so keen to land him.
He was at Ottawa when they took their very first tentative steps into the NASL. It’s not easy.
“If I hadn’t experienced it in Ottawa, then maybe it would’ve been more of a factor but I know about the teething problems that tend to crop up at expansion clubs both on and off the field”, he says.
In Ottawa, we finished 8th or 9th in the table in our first season. It wasn’t great. The fact that the club kept onto the majority of the squad meant that we all knew each other very well for the second season. We didn’t just have an on-field relationship but we had a friendship off of it too. We were all mates. If you play football with your mates and one is in trouble, you’re gonna help them out. That’s the mentality we’re trying to build here.
I hope that from the experience I had up there, I can bring a little bit to the pitch in Miami and can make us better.”
Ryan is a strong character, a born-leader but does he feel differently carrying such a weight of anticipation on his shoulders now?
“I know my limitations. I know what I’m good at and that’s what I’ll stick to. Just because there’s a price tag now, it’s not going to change the way I play or make me feel like I have to do more to justify Miami’s interest in me.
The manager said to me before my first game last Saturday, ‘Just do what you do’. And I hope that doing what I do is the reason they came after me in the first place.”
The Miami dressing-room is a heady mixture of some familiar faces and steady, if unremarkable, pros – the standard for a North American club in a glitzy city.
The former Wigan, Stoke and Tottenham midfielder Wilson Palacios is there along with the ex-Nice and Ajax attacker Dario Cvitanich.
But it’s Nesta who has the aura, the charm, the pedigree.
“If you’d ask any player in North America or Ireland or England, even, I’d say they’d all snap your hands off to play for Nesta”, says Ryan.
I’d like to get into the coaching side of things after I finish playing so I can learn from somebody who’s played their entire career at the top level. Hopefully I can take little bits and pieces from his coaching that can benefit me whenever the day comes that I do have to hang up the boots.
His English is good. You can understand everything he says. He’s able to get the message across really easily. We have quite a few South American players who speak Spanish and I think Nesta does too so it’s a great help for him to be able to speak a few different languages. And it’s a great help for us as well.
His swear words seem to be in Italian, though. My Italian isn’t great but I can tell that they’re swear words!
This weekend, he can finally catch his breath.
The team aren’t in action so he’s got some time off. He hasn’t seen his wife, Nik, or his daughter Polly since the deal went through – they’ve been back in Ottawa for a pre-planned trip and then in Jacksonville – but they’ll join Ryan in Miami in the next few days and the family will hit the reset button. Again.
Together they’ll try and wrap their heads around the life-changing opportunity.
“They’ve given me an extra year so it’s a 2-and-a-half-year contract”, Ryan says.
“It was something I couldn’t really turn down. I’m a bit overwhelmed by it all, to be honest, at this stage of my career.”
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