Tuesday 16 January 2018

Ryan making the most of his American dream

Richie Ryan in action for Miami FC. Photo: Miami FC
Richie Ryan in action for Miami FC. Photo: Miami FC
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

Richie Ryan chuckles when he is asked if the younger version of himself could ever have envisaged life in Miami.

"If I had ended up here," he laughs. "It would have been for all of the wrong reasons."

Richie Ryan with his wife Nik and daughter Polly in Miami.
Richie Ryan with his wife Nik and daughter Polly in Miami.

But Florida is now home to the 32-year-old footballer from Tipperary, a settled family man that has capitalised on the globalised nature of his chosen sport to sample new experiences.

In a week where League of Ireland pros jet off for novel European trips, Ryan is earning his living in the sun, residing on the outskirts of a thriving multicultural metropolis.

It's the little things that remind him of this unexpected path. Last week, he heard his two-and-a-half-year-old daughter Polly counting to five in Spanish; Miami is a majority Latino city which means kids are taught in two languages.

"I'm not sure there's ever been a lick of Spanish spoken where I live in Tipperary," says the Templetuohy man, breaking into laughter again.

Ryan lifting the FAI Cup in 2011 with Sligo Rovers. Picture credit: Barry Cregg / SPORTSFILE
Ryan lifting the FAI Cup in 2011 with Sligo Rovers. Picture credit: Barry Cregg / SPORTSFILE

Just three years have passed since the second big move of his life.

The first was a common one for aspiring young Irish pros: chasing the dream in England.

He went over with a big reputation. The talented midfielder who had travelled weekly from Tipp to Dublin to play for Belvedere was snapped up by Sunderland and beat the percentages by making a Premier League debut as a teenager.

What followed afterwards was disappointment. A complicated hip problem, a series of false starts and broken promises. Eventually, he made his way to the auld sod via Scunthorpe, Boston and a stint in Belgium that hinted at the wanderlust of a technically assured performer.

Sligo Rovers convinced him to sign, but they inherited an individual who had also developed a lust for social habits that are not conducive to a career as a professional athlete. He was disillusioned with the game and contemplated quitting.

But he found strength under Paul Cook and developed into a top League of Ireland player. That in itself is a precarious existence with the long winters of uncertainty.

Life briefly took him to Scotland and Dundee United - his wife Nik is Scottish - but he always had the feelers out for fresh opportunities and one came his way.

The embryonic Ottawa Fury club offered a change of scenery and he took the leap to Canada in 2014. Ottawa played in the North American Soccer League (NASL) - the level below the MLS.

After two seasons ended with a harsh NASL Cup final loss, the club captain opted to relocate to Jacksonville Armada in Florida. "We moved down for what we thought was going to be two years," he says, "It was closer to two months."

The newly-married Ryan was five games into his stay when he found himself at the centre of a move that shocked US observers.

Miami FC were the new player in the NASL, owned by Italian businessman Riccardo Silva who partnered with the great Paolo Maldini to fund it.

David Beckham's attempts to set up a MLS franchise in an untapped market have been stuck in red tape and Silva spotted potential in a league which has more flexible ownership arrangements than the MLS' centralised franchise system.

Another AC Milan legend, World Cup winner Alessandro Nesta was drafted in as manager. They were struggling for a defensive midfielder and decided to seek out the best in their own league.

Ryan fitted the bill and they had the means to make Jacksonville an offer they couldn't refuse for their new captain, with $750,000 the headline figure that turned heads given it exceeded any fee paid between MLS clubs who tend to trade or pay small money.

His wages received a considerable boost and the security of a two-and-a-half-year contract on attractive terms was an extraordinary turn of events given that he had recent memory of being in a league of 40-week contracts.

"And I would say that the level of the NASL or the USL (United Soccer League - which also has second tier status) is probably similar to the top half of the table in Ireland," he says.

"It wasn't something that I expected but it does give you a little bit of belief that you might actually be a decent footballer."

At the time, it almost seemed too good to be true. But he's comfortable in a sphere that he feels would suit players from Ireland, although the NASL is not perfect with some members enduring financial strife. Ottawa have defected to the USL.

Miami are in good shape, though, riding high at the top of the table and also making progress in the US version of the FA Cup - the Open Cup - with a victory over Kaka's Orlando City in the last round.

Another MLS operation, Atlanta United, are in town this week. Ryan sought out Kaka for a photograph and admits that rubbing shoulders with household names that continue to relocate Stateside is part of the sporting attraction.

"It's normal that people get wrapped up in the MLS but there are a lot of big names at the levels below (NASL and USL)," he explains, "You have Joe Cole now, Didier Drogba is there, Shaun Wright Phillips. When I came over first, I played against Raul and Marcos Senna.

"For a player like me, to play against some of the players I grew up watching on TV, it's great."

Nesta runs the club in his own way. "All the staff here are Italian and everything is very professional," continues Ryan. "He was a massive part of AC Milan's success and he has a philosophy that he's not going to change.

"They just bring in players that fit into their system. And the football is enjoyable. It always is when you're winning games."

The travel can be a bit of a chore. A fortnight ago, he split his time between Edmonton, Orlando and Miami with the equivalent of three European trips crammed into a week. But Ryan views it with a positively, a chance to further his education as part of a longer-term plan to stay in the game - football is all that he knows.

"Football gives you these opportunities," he says. "So you have to take them. Your career isn't going to last forever. And when the day comes that I have to hang my boots up, I can say I got to play in Ireland and England and Belgium and Canada and America. I'll look back with fond memories.

"I am lucky that my missus was on the same page when we met in Scotland. I'd love to see more Irish coming over here - I watch 'Soccer Republic' every week and see lads who would do well - but it obviously depends on their situation. Getting up and leaving isn't easy."

It may not match the glamour of the Premier League, but he is challenging for honours with a team that draws over 6,000 punters every week and features regularly on local TV.

His mother, Marie, is up in the early hours to watch live streams of every match. She knows her son is living a dream, even if it's not the dream that he once had.

"Of course, I could look back now and think about when I was at Sunderland and it all went pear-shaped. But what's the point in doing that?" he says

"If my life had gone that way, I wouldn't have found my missus, I wouldn't have the gorgeous girl I have and another kid on the way, I wouldn't be living in Miami and experiencing football in a different corner of the world.

"Sure, people can look back and have regrets. But I'm happy with the way that my career has panned out."

Thousands would love to swap places.

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