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'To have that taken away...I was annoyed and probably a little bitter': Richie Ryan on MLS anger and a new start

The former Sligo Rovers midfielder seemed set to feature in Major League Soccer with FC Cincinnati.

THE PLAN WAS pretty simple: move to North America in 2014 and do whatever was needed to reach Major League Soccer.

And for a long time – in spite of various ups and downs – it seemed Richie Ryan was well on track to achieve his goal. 

There was an initial spell with the Ottawa Fury, whom he captained to the NASL final in 2015 and where he built an impressive reputation. Then there was a stint with Jacksonville before Alessandro Nesta earmarked him as central to his plans at Miami FC and forked out a small fortune to sign him. But it was Ryan’s next move that seemed set to provide him with the MLS opportunity he had craved for so long.

In the 2018 off-season, he signed a two-year deal with FC Cincinnati. With remarkable home attendances regularly teetering around the 25,000 mark, the team were in the mix to become an MLS franchise the following season. And a few months after Ryan’s arrival, they were confirmed as an expansion side. 

But, injury curtailed his involvement during his debut campaign and there was an enforced three-month absence. Added to that was the team’s short play-off run, of which Ryan only played 20 minutes. Still, given his experience, his leadership, his much-revered calm and composure in central midfield and his overall impact on the squad, it seemed a smart decision to keep him around for a seismic transition to MLS. Conversations with the club had indicated to him that he was part of their long-term plans.  

Screen Shot 2019-06-03 at 14.38.22 Ryan was signed to a two-year deal by FC Cincinnati in 2018.

However, by the end of the year, Ryan was gone. In a farewell statement posted to his Twitter profile, he gave thanks to the fans but pointedly described his time in the city as having been ‘cut short’. 

He and the family were settled and had been led to believe Cincinnati would be their home for the immediate future. Ryan is reluctant to say too much about the departure and his relationship with manager Alan Koch but does admit to being irritated at just how close MLS was. 

“At the beginning it bothered me a little because my objective moving to North America in 2014 was to do all I could to get a shot playing in MLS because it’s the highest level over here,” he says. 

To have that taken away…I was annoyed and probably a little bitter. But looking from the outside and seeing what’s happened at Cincinnati and the USL players not really having the opportunities they’ve probably been promised, I’m guessing I would have been in the same boat anyway. I’m playing every week down here and I’m enjoying the football we’re playing. For any footballer it’s better that you’re playing than sitting on your backside and watching.” 

While Cincinnati have subsequently struggled and fired Koch because of their poor MLS start, Ryan’s new adventure has taken him to Texas.

He signed a deal with the (rapidly-expanding) USL’s El Paso Locomotive at the start of the year. It’s a brand-new club and managed by one of Ryan’s old pals from Jacksonville, Mark Lowry.

With 36 teams spread across two conferences, El Paso are four points off the top in the west and unbeaten in their last seven league games.

“So far, so good,” Ryan says. 

“We try to play a lot, more than I’ve played with any other team – probably even Miami. The manager insists on us playing from the back, which is brilliant. And he gives us the confidence to do it every time. He’s only ever unhappy when we don’t do it.” 

Still, the move has been tough. Ryan always finds it hard to deal with the one-sidedness of being a football pro. Whenever there’s a switch to a new team, he gets to walk into a dressing room with a bunch of other like-minded guys who are all of a similar age. Meeting new people, getting acclimatised and figuring out surroundings is pretty easy for him. But it’s not the same for his wife, Nik, and their two children, Polly and Preston.  

Screen Shot 2019-06-03 at 11.32.48 Ryan has settled in at El Paso but does admit the transition to another new city has been tough on his family.

“It’s been a bit of a challenge, to be honest,” he says. 

“We were very settled in Cincinnati and then to uproot the missus and the kids and come down here…it’s a unique place. It’s not similar to anywhere else we’ve been. It’s pretty spread out so it took us a while to get our bearings. It’s more difficult for the family because I’ve got a ready-made community for me to blend into. But for Nik and the kids it’s harder to meet people.”

There’s a big Mexican influence here because of the border. This might have been the first stop for Mexicans coming to the US and they might have settled here. I’m driving down the motorway right now and on the other side of it is Juarez, which is in Mexico. The border is literally underneath me. We’re a stones throw away. But such a big Mexican heritage is a good thing for the club, I think. Mexicans love football so we’ve had a decent, steady attendance of just over 7,000 – so you can’t really complain about that for a first season.” 

The playing environment in El Paso suits Ryan perfectly. He has the highest passing accuracy numbers in the entire league and given Lowry’s coaching style, he’s on the ball a lot. In most games, the team will have 60% possession and rack up 600 passes. It’s not MLS but Ryan is in his element regardless. A purist, he credits a legendary League of Ireland figure with having a substantial impact on his game.   

Richie Ryan Ryan in action for Sligo Rovers in 2011. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

“Where I saw a big difference – and it probably had a huge influence on my career – was when Joseph Ndo came to Sligo Rovers,” he says. 

I know people rant and rave about Joe but I still don’t think they realise how good he was. They talk about his tricks and all of that but when he came there first he changed our whole dressing room in terms of the way we thought of the game and the way we played. We were fortunate having a manager like Cookie (Paul Cook), who wanted us to play and pass the ball. And I think Joe helped Cookie get the team to the next level in terms of our style of play. He was massive influence and brought out the best in me in how we played the game together. I learned a lot from it and I’ve taken that on in my career. The ball moves quicker than any man. If you can keep it and move it quickly then you have half a chance of doing okay.”

Ryan enjoyed himself in Miami and it helped that Nesta relentlessly extolled the virtues of possession-based football and would regularly take players to task for veering from the philosophy.  

“A lot of people talk about Italian coaches and their style of play being defensive and all of that but Nesta was the opposite,” Ryan says. 

Screen Shot 2019-06-03 at 14.50.12 Alessandro Nesta spent a small fortune to bring Ryan to Miami FC.

“I think people judge Italian coaches on what the national team used to be years ago. But playing under him, if you kicked a long ball he’d be raging with you. And he’d tell you as well. A lot of players find it hard to accept criticism in football but under him you didn’t have a choice. He’d criticise you every day if you did something wrong. But you have to look at where he’s come from and what he’s done in the game. If Alessandro Nesta criticises you, he’s probably right. And if you did something well, he’d praise you. He was very hard on the training ground because he wanted us to be the best we could be. In the first year in Miami, he wanted us to play his style but we lacked about four or five players and then in the off-season he went out and signed players that gave us more of what we needed. And the next season we steamrollered the entire league playing some unbelievable football.” 

As the experienced pro, Ryan is enjoying guiding younger players and watching them blossom. Coaching seems a perfect fit for when he decides to call it a day. 

“Since I’ve come over here I’ve had more of that role in each club I’ve been at,” he says. 

“We’ve had younger players coming through that – more often than not – just happened to play in the same position as me and I’ve always got great satisfaction from seeing some of them develop through a season. I get to dispense a few bits of advice and I keep in touch with them if they move on, keep an eye to see how they’re doing and they’ve all carved out careers for themselves so far. We have a young midfielder here, Louis Herrera, that’s worked in construction for the last few years. He’s 23 and from El Paso and Mark Lowry spotted him playing in a tournament here one weekend. Now he’s got the chance to play for his hometown club. Just to see the progress in him since he arrived in pre-season and to watch him start more games…To have a story like that and to be able to help a player like that gives me great satisfaction.”

Screen Shot 2019-06-03 at 14.58.03 Ryan started out in North America with Canadian side Ottawa Fury in 2014. It's been quite the adventure since.

Ryan is 34 now and is the first to admit that the North American adventure has been particularly crazy. Five clubs in five years spread across three US states and two countries. Oh, and one wedding and two kids. 

“It is a bit mad,” he says, with a laugh. 

“We found out a week before leaving for Ottawa that we were pregnant with Polly so we knew she was going to be Canadian. Then we decided it was time for baby number two and we happened to be in America. So it’s definitely a diverse family that we have: Scottish, Irish, Canadian and American. But you never know in football what the future holds. Sometimes it’s a good thing, sometimes not so good. But it gives the kids opportunities when they grow up and if they want to travel.”

The family are still coming to terms with Texas so there hasn’t been much discussion about future plans just yet. Ryan feels he still has plenty to offer as a player and retirement certainly isn’t imminent. But after that, who knows? North America has presented him with plenty of opportunities so far and that remains a compelling reason for sticking around.       

“One of the things I noticed after a couple of months in Ottawa was the growth of the sport,” he says.

“Football is a lot more accessible now – Fox, ESPN, NBC with the Premier League. Nearly every European league is on TV here each week. With the strength of MLS and the USL growing too, people are starting to buy into the game a lot more. It’s a global sport and the Americans have really bought into it now. The USL has 36 teams which sounds a bit mad and probably is mad. And now it has a League 1 as well. It shows how quick the sport has grown so, you never know what opportunities are going to arise.” 

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About the author:

Eoin O'Callaghan

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