Yesterday's news that D.C. United had acquired MLS veteran defender James Riley for
a song a 2015 2nd round supplemental draft pick was a surprise, yet somehow also felt completely obvious. On one hand, United's right back concerns after Andy Najar's big money move to Anderlecht were recently assuaged by a man-of-the-match performance by Chris Korb in the preseason, and Korb's back-up Robbie Russell is an MLS Cup winner known for being a good locker room presence. Young defender Ethan White provided reasonable depth as the team's third option. A move for a right back didn't seem likely, even with rumors that Riley was on the trading block have existed since Chivas USA publicly returned to their 2005 mission statement of being a primarily Mexican-American (or, at the very least, a "grew up speaking Spanish"-American club).
However, taking a step back and looking at the deal, it makes perfect sense. Korb proved during the last third of 2012 that he's a starting quality left back while Daniel Woolard was out with a concussion, and adding another fullback makes it easier for us to use Korb on the left (especially with Woolard currently being Ben Olsen's likely choice to stand in for either Brandon McDonald or Dejan Jakovic at center back). While Russell is still a respected member of the team, his struggles with Macoumba Kandji and the long balls of the Houston Dynamo proved that, against speedy wingers at least, United needed to find an alternative at right back for the occasions Korb is elsewhere.
However, this deal means more than simply added depth to me. Olsen has made it clear time and again that a key part of his coaching philosophy is to have competition for time. I'm not talking about "competition" like in the past, where certain players basically just had to show up for practice and they'd start. The drop off from our best players to our next tier was simply too steep to use playing time as a motivator for those who needed it, and things like 2011's cull of long-serving players underlined that Olsen wanted to be sure that no player lacked for a reason to be at his best.
We saw numerous examples last season of Olsen's hard line. Chris Pontius sat behind Najar and Nick DeLeon early in the year after he had regained his fitness from a broken leg but not the intense focus required. Designated Player Hamdi Salihi found himself sitting the bench while Maicon Santos and (later) Lionard Pajoy - both less skilled but harder-working strikers - got starts. Branko Boskovic - the best passer of the ball available for United by a comfortable margin - found himself in and out of the starting eleven even as less glamorous players like Marcelo Saragosa became regulars. Bill Hamid had to shake off the dark cloud following him after the Olympic qualifying debacle before he could displace Joe Willis in goal.
That list could go on. The point was this: Players that in previous years would have been set in stone as first-choice were not going to just walk into the starting eleven any more. The bar was raised for everyone from Dwayne De Rosario on down. While tactical requirements undoubtedly were also a factor - especially for Salihi - the philosophy of having players fight for their place every single day was enormous.
It's no exaggeration to say that this tougher training environment had a lot to do with United's ability to win games without De Ro down the stretch. Character can be built and improved just like skill or muscle, and Olsen's standards forced the squad to find new reserves of energy, focus, and determination. The Black-and-Red did not play pretty soccer for most of the final quarter of the season or in the playoffs, but there could be no question about the team's will to win. Sometimes soccer is simple, and over that spell United simply wanted it more than the teams we faced. That was no accident: A winning environment can make all the difference.
Where does Riley fit in to all this? Riley has experience in winning environments, even if said environments - the 2005-2007 New England Revolution and the 2009-2011 Seattle Sounders - are understandably unpopular around these parts. The point is that Riley has been a regular on good teams that had ambitions of winning silverware, and that's what United is nowadays.
While he has technically played for six MLS teams up to this point, most of those moves were the result of MLS's wave of expansion drafts (side note: This is the first offseason since 2005 that didn't feature an expansion draft). The Revs didn't want to lose Riley, but he was taken by the reborn San Jose Earthquakes following the 2007 season. The Quakes didn't want to lose Riley, but he was taken by the Seattle Sounders following the 2008 season. The Sounders didn't want to lose Riley, but he was taken by the Montreal Impact following the 2011 season. Only the Impact willingly traded Riley away before the dysfunctional Goats gave him away for virtually nothing, and it was for two young players and an allocation.
Players like Riley are largely accustomed to success. He was at Wake Forest when they were contending for national championships, and he immediately became a starter as a rookie. He won't be confused by an environment where the head coach and the clubhouse leaders all demand your very best in every training session.
Riley also boosts the competition for playing time in more than one position. If Korb felt at all comfortable that he'd be United's starting right back, he now knows he'll have to fight for time just like last year. While Korb is the better attacking right back and is tougher at 1v1 defending, Riley is slightly stronger positionally, has more experience, is the better athlete by a narrow margin, and is just as tough as the notoriously competitive Akron product. There is very little to choose from between these two battling, determined right backs.
That also pushes Woolard at left back, where Korb was a reliably strong performer last year. Woolard will be more challenged by the potential of Korb playing on the left than Taylor Kemp, who may end up being a left midfielder/left back rather than a pure left back to start his career. Riley has also played more than a few games at left back himself, and while he had to be a bit more conservative than normal, he didn't struggle.
Competition for playing time has a way of infecting squads. If Riley, Korb, and Woolard are battling for time, that means that every 5v2 keep-away drill, every sprint, and every inter-squad match will see them doing their best. The rest of the players on the team will have to be that much better to avoid being run off the field by that trio. Imagine the difference for a young player like DeLeon, running up against fullbacks needing to be at their very best versus trying to get past a guy who knows he's going to start on the weekend.
When clubs bring more MLS-quality starters than there are spots on the field, those teams tend to win things. Every player benefits (even if Riley isn't competing with, say, Pajoy). If Olsen takes someone aside to remind them that you have to give your all to get on the field, that player can see that he's not being singled out. The tougher it is to get on the field for United, the tougher it will be for opposing teams to beat United.