Football Ferns captain Ali Riley has found a new home in the City of Angels, leading a high-profile new team who share her values. And she’s ready to cross the Pacific again, to take New Zealand into battle against Australia this week.
Ali Riley is living the Hollywood life. And loving it.
In between trainings for her new club, Angel City FC, attending the LA Sports Awards and appearing on talk show Jimmy Kimmel Live, the Football Ferns captain still manages time for a quick chat one evening.
Speaking from the backseat of a car, before her Jimmy Kimmel appearance (see below), the Californian-born Riley says her life feels like a dream right now.
“It’s honestly still surreal for me,” the 34-year-old says.
Angel City are the latest team in the United States’ National Women’s Soccer League and are Los Angeles’ first women’s professional soccer team since 2010. And Riley is their new captain.
With high profile owners such as actress Natalie Portman and tennis legend Serena Williams, Angel City is not just about football, which was something that drew Riley to the club.
“What this club stands for, its initiatives, are things I’m very passionate about,” she says.
Angel City president and co-founder, Julie Uhrman, is passionate about the fight for equal pay and equal media coverage for the women’s game. The club are also highly involved in their community, donating equipment to local players, food to those in need and coaching thousands of young footballers.
Riley says the values behind the club shine through in their team’s culture, both on and off the field.
“When we wear this crest and go out and play, we want to do well for the club, for the communities, for ourselves, for the city – there’s so many things driving us,” she says.
It wasn’t purely the club’s mission that drew Riley to them, though – the chance to have her family watch her play more often was another major drawcard.
Riley was born in Los Angeles and grew up playing football there (she’s played all her international football for New Zealand through having a Kiwi father). The city inspired her to follow her dream of being a professional football player.
“My dream started forming when I went to the 1999 Women’s World Cup in Los Angeles, when I went to that World Cup final and saw the US win,” she recalls.
“For me to see that and have that excitement, to see women at the top of their game and top of their careers, playing on that stage, that’s a life changer.”
Transferring from Orlando Pride in the off-season, Riley says family is everything and to have her parents see her more than once or twice a year means so much to her.
Although she’s been a member of the Football Ferns squad since 2007, with almost 150 caps to her name, the SheBelieves Cup in February was the first time Riley wore the fern in her home city.
She remembers looking into the crowd and seeing her family in New Zealand colours, but also a number of fans wearing Angel City merchandise – before the club had even played a game.
“To have the fans know my name, to say ‘We cannot wait to see you play’, honestly it still feels like a dream,” she says.
Angel City recently had their media day, Riley’s first time having her hair and make-up done for such an event.
“That might seem like a small thing and people might roll their eyes about women wanting their hair and make-up done. But I just think it’s those little things that make you feel valued,” she says.
“This club understands what it’s like to want to be your best, to look your best, to show your best self. We want to really be looking our best and feeling good so we can say all the amazing things and talk about our experiences.”
Ali Riley with her parents at a Football Ferns game.
Young girls in the Los Angeles area now have a local team to support and see in their community, a representation which Riley is proud to be part of.
“In this huge, diverse, beautiful city, for little girls to be able to follow us week in and week out and have that visibility and see players on the team who have so many different backgrounds, have so many different skin colours, all of those things are so important,” says Riley.
“I know what sport has done for me in terms of my character, in terms of my confidence, my body image, so many important things.
“It’s about those little girls having a dream and being able to have access to see us and hear our stories and understand that we can do anything we want, especially as women.”
New Zealand and Australia co-host the FIFA Women’s World Cup in 2023, and Riley has her sights on getting beyond the group stages with the Football Ferns.
In the lead-up, the Ferns take on Australia’s Matildas in two friendly matches over the next week – the first game on Friday night in Townsville – which Riley considers great preparation for the World Cup.
“They’re [Australia] always really tough, I’m sure there’ll be a great crowd and it’s a very important promotional opportunity for the two hosts to be playing,” she says.
“It’s a pretty big travel for a lot of us, but we’re lucky to be playing down in a market so close to home.”
Being able to balance playing for New Zealand and for clubs around the world (including a season for Chelsea in the Women’s Super League) has made Riley the player and person she is today.
“For me at this point in my career, playing is important, I have lofty goals for my own individual performances, I feel responsibility to be playing my best so I can represent New Zealand. But I also want to spend energy making an impact in the community,” she says.
“Inspiring young girls, representing the Asian-American community and supporting under-served communities – these are all things this club does.”
Angel City have played four pre-season games so far, losing three and drawing one – but Riley says the team still has high expectations for when the season starts proper on April 29th.
“We’re going to show on the field that it’s not just about the brand. This is about the soccer too because our vision is really, really big and we have big goals and big dreams,” Riley says.
“I think we’re going to set the standard and show that it’s possible, and more owners and more investors and more sponsors are going to finally realise that it is a good opportunity to invest in sport – particularly women’s soccer.
“I think this club is going to show everyone that.”
*The Football Ferns take on Australia in two friendlies this month – the first game in Townsville on Friday at 9.40pm, and the second in Canberra on Tuesday 12th at 9.40pm; both live on Sky Sport 7.