National coach John Herdman can't contain his excitement at Football Fern Ali Riley's imminent appearance "in the grand final of the best league of the world" for the "Real Madrid of women's football".
The 22-year-old Californian with Christchurch connections will turn out at left back for FC Gold Pride against the Philadelphia Independence in the Women's Professional Soccer (WPS) title decider at Hayward, in the San Francisco Bay area on Monday morning.
Riley, a Stanford University psychology major, last week won the WPS rookie of the year award. She'll fly out to Auckland next week for the Football Ferns' World Cup qualifying campaign against their Oceania rivals.
The New Zealand and Oceania player of the year, who Herdman describes as having "bags of energy on and off the field", is living a football dream. And so is the Ferns coach.
"She's playing for the Real Madrid of women's football," Herdman enthuses. "We want our players playing in the best competitions and to see one of our players in the final of the best league in the world is outstanding for women's football."
Riley, Herdman says, is now a role model for the thousands of girls flocking to football throughout New Zealand.
The player herself is taking the adulation and attention in her stride. She's completing a final semester at Stanford while playing professionally and also looking ahead to the international arena.
"But all I'm focusing on right now is the final."
An attacking left back with blistering speed, Riley felt honoured but also "shocked" at winning the rookie of the year award "with so many excellent rookies in the league this year".
She couldn't have wished for a better baptism in the pro game. Her FC Gold Pride team-mates include Brazilian striker Marta – world women's footballer of the year for the last four seasons and WPS league MVP – United States goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart, and veteran midfielder Shannon Boxx, an Olympic Games gold medallist.
Seven teams contest the four-round, 24-match WPS regular season league, which is in only its second season. Gold Pride romped home in first place, 17 points ahead of their nearest rivals.
League crowds average about 3500 – but Riley says Gold Pride are expecting between 4000 and 5000 for the grand final.
Players earn a living wage with league salaries about US$25,000 (NZ$34,300) to $60,000, although Marta is widely believed to be on US$225,000 – plus a similar amount in sponsorship endorsements. The Brazilian is just "an awesome person, real fun to be around", Riley says.
It goes without saying that Alexandra Lowe Riley is literally living the life of Riley since joining Gold Pride as the number 10 pick in the first round of the WPS draft. She had 23 regular season starts and set up three goals.
But how did a woman who grew up in the Pacific Palisades – a beach suburb in the greater Los Angeles conurbation – come to represent New Zealand?
Her father, John Graham Riley, a distinguished professor of economics at UCLA university, grew up in Christchurch. Her mother, Beverley Fong Lowe, is an American of Chinese descent.
John Riley still has family in Christchurch and two brothers in Nelson. His personal website carries a link to Lake Forsyth Wines, an Okuti Valley pinot gris boutique winery. Riley and his wife are listed as the brand's United States contact.
Ali Riley recalls "coming to Christchurch every year on holiday as a kid". But it wasn't till she began playing for New Zealand that she "got to learn a lot more about the Kiwi culture".
She's the first footballer in the family, drawn to the game like so many girls in America where "soccer" is a massive junior sport. Her father was a basketballer and swimmer and both parents are keen runners and tennis players.
A three-sport athlete (football, tennis and track sprinting) as a youngster, she focused fully on football in her senior years at Harvard-Westlake School in North Hollywood "because I wanted to get into a strong division one college".
It worked. Stanford University – alma mater of All Whites Ryan Nelsen and Simon Elliott – snapped her up as a freshman in 2006.
It was around that time, Riley recalled, that her dad contacted New Zealand Football to let them know she was eligible.
Herdman remembers his email.
"He said she's played at a good level and we might want to take a look at her. I asked them for a DVD of her in action. You really get an understanding of someone's commitment then because not many people get one together. But they did. It even had these big arrows pointing to where she was on the pitch. I could see she was pretty talented and keen and I could see she had a lot of pace. So we brought her over for the under-20 team's Australian trip in 2006 and she was a revelation.
"She was naturalised there and then."
Riley says she arrived in Australia "not knowing anyone in the New Zealand team". By the end of her first day, she felt like she'd found a whole bunch of new friends.
She went on to star for the Young Ferns at the 2006 World Cup in Russia. A year later she played in the senior World Cup in China.
In 2008, she was back in Beijing for the Olympic Games where she said it was a highlight to meet Stanford alumni Nelsen and Elliott at the Kiwi compound in the athletes' village.
Riley says she has no regrets at pledging her loyalty to the Football Ferns rather than the United States – the top women's football nation in the world.
"I've developed as a player since I've been playing for New Zealand because of John [Herdman]. I think I've just been so blessed to have gone to an Olympic Games and a World Cup already as a 20-year-old. I don't think that's something I would ever trade for anything. And hopefully, we'll qualify for another World Cup. I just feel so lucky."
The WPS Grand Final kicks off at 6.30am Monday (NZ time). It can be viewed via webcast through www.womensprosoccer.com
- © Fairfax NZ News