LAKE MARY, Fla. – About a week ago, James Riley entered Chivas USA Coach Jose Luis Sanchez Sola’s office in Carson, Calif., to say thank you and goodbye. Riley had been traded to D.C. United, his fourth move in about five years. He had gathered his belongings from Home Depot Center’s locker room and stopped to see the vivacious first-year coach known as “Chelis.”
Riley doesn’t speak Spanish and the Mexican leader doesn’t speak English, so some of the nuance was lost through an interpreter. But what the 30-year-old defender took from the brief parting was this:
“He didn’t seem to have an idea what was happening,” Riley said Tuesday at D.C. United’s team hotel near Orlando.
Riley tried to explain he was leaving. Chelis pointed to a whiteboard with Riley’s name on it.
“I said: ‘It’s done. I’m on a flight in two hours.’ It was a bizarre situation. The [trade] seemed to come from above his head.”
Riley’s accounts provide a window into the byzantine world of Chivas USA, an organization owned and operated by Mexican club Chivas Guadalajara.
Like several MLS teams, Chivas USA has been remodeling its roster. But in an effort to appeal to Southern California’s Mexican-American demographics and gain a foothold in an MLS market dominated by the two-time defending champion Los Angeles Galaxy, Chivas USA has made a concerted effort to add Latin flavor.
As part of that process, numerous players without Latino ties have been dismissed.
In addition to Riley, United picked up forward Casey Townsend last month. A year ago, he was Chivas USA’s first-round draft pick, taken fifth overall from the University of Maryland. United got him for a future second-round selection.
In the deal for Riley, a starter much of his eight pro seasons, United only had to relinquish a 2015 supplemental draft pick. Chivas also agreed to continue paying a portion of his $125,000 salary, people familiar with the terms said on the condition on anonymity.
“There was a shift in their philosophy on where they wanted to go,” Townsend said. “I had a feeling I might be on the way out. It’s something they wanted to do and they are trying to connect with that fan base. I don’t think it’s racial or prejudice. That’s the direction they chose and I didn’t necessarily fit into that plan.”
Chivas Guadalajara, Mexico’s most popular team, does not field non-Mexican players. The U.S. affiliate is not nearly as exclusive; even after the offseason moves, it still employs players from multiple backgrounds.
“The team does not have an identity and has been flavorless,” Chelis told the club’s Web site in December.
With the branding effort underway, “no one knew what quite to expect” when training camp opened, Riley said. “It was difficult not knowing whether they would be there. It was a volatile situation.”
Early in preseason, Riley asked management if he was in its plans. If not, he wanted the opportunity to move sooner rather than later in order to compete for a starting spot elsewhere. He was reassured of his place, he said, and, in fact, the sides entered into negotiations to extend his contract.
With a deal imminent, he said, he and his girlfriend Ashley signed a lease on a bigger apartment. She accepted a new job. They had hired movers and picked up the keys and were driving to their new home when he received a call saying he was on the way out. All Riley knew was he was heading for Chicago or Washington.
Riley echoed Townsend’s thoughts, saying he didn’t detect any overt prejudice in the decision.
“What was going around was common knowledge,” he said of Chivas USA’s roster approach. “They brought in some good players and good characters. While I was in it, I didn’t see a bias. They did a few things different culturally, but it was a great group they assembled.”
Switching teams is nothing new for Riley, who, in three recent expansion drafts, was left exposed — and subsequently selected. He played three years for New England, was claimed by San Jose and lasted one season with the Earthquakes before moving to Seattle for three. In November 2011, newcomer Montreal selected him and immediately traded him to Chivas USA.
All along, “We have had our eye on him but it never worked out,” United Coach Ben Olsen said.
Since selling Andy Najar to Belgian club Anderlecht this month, United has sought to build depth at right back. Chris Korb was the first choice throughout preseason, with veteran Robbie Russell in reserve, but Riley’s arrival intensifies the competition just ahead of the March 2 opener at Houston.
“I accept the challenge and the timing of it,” Riley said. “The coaching staff is here to decide, but I just want to be simple and consistent.”
United notes: Defenders Jan Fredericksen and Shavar Thomas and midfielder Joseph Nane were cut, reducing the roster to 32. Further moves are expected late this week. . . . United (1-2-2 in preseason) will utilize non-contract players and reserves in Wednesday’s friendly against the Philadelphia Union in Deltona, Fla.