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Southern Comfort: Tipperary's Richie Ryan on his new life in Texas and preparing for the next chapter

It’s been quite the adventure for the former Sligo Rovers midfielder since he moved to North America in early 2014.

“THERE’S NOT MUCH happening in Fresno”.

As opening gambits go, it’s a bit Coen Brothers. But, then again, so is the life of a USL (United Soccer League) Championship footballer. Some genuine drama? Check. Moments of surreal comedy? Check. A flurry of faceless places? Check. A cast of captivating characters? Check.

And Richie Ryan has embraced it all. Maybe that’s because – as a Tipperary man in the middle of El Paso on the US/Mexico border – his own story is pretty quirky. 

But North America has been good to him. He’s learned to roll with the punches and after various stints across the continent (Ottawa, Jacksonville, Miami and Cincinnati), he’s now based in Texas’ wild west, just a 20-minute drive from the crossing bridge to Ciudad Juarez, and turning out for the local pro side in what’s effectively the second tier of the football pyramid.  

The season – El Paso Locomotive’s very first – has been excellent. They’ve built up an average crowd of over 6,500 and under the stewardship of Mark Lowry, who Ryan worked with at Jacksonville Armada, they have also reached the USL Championship play-offs. 

Later tonight, they face Californian side Fresno FC in the Western Conference quarter-final with the winner taking on either Reno or Sacramento Republic, who have recently been announced as a Major League Soccer expansion side for 2022. Get through that and they’re 90 minutes from a USL Championship decider on November 17th.

“It something we set out to do from the start of the season”, Ryan says.

“We’ve put together a good squad and Mark’s ideas on the game and the way he wants to play is different to a lot of coaches. And it’s been a reasonably consistent campaign that saw us finish sixth in the Western Conference.”

This is Ryan’s sixth season in North America but he still finds the playoff system difficult to wrap his head around. The 36 USL teams are split into two conferences but success in the regular season isn’t exactly rewarded. Phoenix Rising – the club part-owned by Didier Drogba –  finished top of the Western Conference, a whopping 18 points clear of nearest challengers Reno. They scored 89 goals in 34 games for a goal difference of +53. Even the best team in the Eastern Conference – Pittsburgh – could only manage 10 points less. But for all Phoenix’s consistent dominance, they’re also in quarter-final action this evening against lowest-ranked Austin Bold FC.    

Screen Shot 2019-10-24 at 18.13.55 Richie Ryan, an FAI Cup winner with Sligo Rovers, has been in North America since the start of 2014.

“The playoff format is a strange one for me”, Ryan admits.

“Phoenix ran away with the league but it seems like nobody really speaks about it. There’s not much made about finishing top of the league because everybody is obsessed with the playoffs. And you hear people saying, ‘Now is when the real games start’.But if you were top of the table over 34 games then that should be recognised. In my eyes. So the playoffs is basically a cup competition. That’s how I look at it. The same as the FAI Cup at home. You take every game as it comes and worry about the one in front of you. There is seeding involved but when you’re at home, there’s more expectation and the visiting team is usually the underdog so there’s less pressure on them. If we win tonight, we might have a home game in the conference semi-finals. Now, from a player’s point of view, I don’t think we’re bothered if it’s home or away. But for the fans, given that it’s the first season, it would be a nice occasion for the club to have a playoff game in our own backyard.”    

It’s a different role for Ryan in El Paso. It’s a young group and, given he turns 35 in January, he’s very much the veteran. But that provides its own opportunities and alongside Lowry, he’s been assisting with some coaching throughout the campaign. With one eye on what comes next, it hasn’t been the easiest transition. It’s meant longer hours at training and lots of office-based analysis and data-crunching. Ryan prefers being out on the pitch, more hands-on and practical, but he’s also acutely aware of retirement’s affect on players who aren’t ready for it and how they struggle to adapt to the 20-year routine ending overnight. So, everything he’s doing now is to ease that transition to the next chapter.      

“It’s been a difficult one for to balance, to be honest”, he says. 

Trying to manage the longer hours…I’ve never had to do it before so it’s something new. But Mark is very much a coach and not a manager and he likes to do a lot of the on-field stuff himself. So I’ve learned from that too. It’s just preparing me for the day when I do have to hang the boots up. It’s not a day I want to come any time soon but it’s put me in a position where I can learn the other side of the game. By being in the position, I feel it’ll make it easier to come to terms with packing it in. Which is important because you read stories about guys that finish playing and it’s a shock to the system because they’ve played football for 17 or 18 years and one day they wake up and don’t play anymore.” 

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“The role I’ve taken on over the last few years is to try and help younger players – as much as I can – build careers for themselves. If I can help in any way, I will. Especially someone like Louis Herrera here, or ‘Chapa’ as he’s known. He’s a central midfielder too so we have that natural connection. But we’re room-mates as well so it’s been brilliant for me to see his development over the season.”

And has Ryan’s influence extended to ‘Chapa’ developing a Tipp brogue?  

“Not so much. His Tipperary lilt is about the same as my Spanish one.”  

Screen Shot 2019-10-24 at 18.13.41 Later tonight, Ryan's team El Paso Locomotive takes on Fresno FC from California in the USL Championship play-offs.

And the body is holding up okay? It’s not creaking when he gets out of bed?

He erupts with laughter.

“The creaks have been there for years”.

“I had a stress fracture – the same injury I had last year – just over a month ago. But thankfully I was back a lot quicker this time. I’m fully fit after only three weeks and played the full 90 minutes last week so it’s good to get back involved now with some big games coming up.”

Under Lowry’s guidance, the team’s style is possession-based. It’s one of the biggest reasons Ryan – a football purist – made the move south. El Paso players are encouraged to build from the back. The approach has got them this far and the playoffs – no matter what’s at stake – won’t see them compromise the system.

“If you believe in something then you need to go all in on it”, Ryan says.

“Whether it’s a regular-season game or a playoff game, you try to drill things home to your players throughout the entire campaign on how you want the game to be played. If you start to change or sway from that because it’s a bigger game, then they might not really know what’s expected from them. If you believe in something and believe it’s the right way of doing it, you try to perfect it as much as you can. And you’ve got more chance of the players buying into that.”    

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About the author:

Eoin O'Callaghan

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