Colorado-raised defenders James Riley and Bobby Burling have been part of many different clubs in their MLS careers, but both are looking forward to earning a win for the Rapids with this weekend’s homecoming match against New England.
Burling, a Lewis-Palmer graduate from Monument, Colorado, returned home after the Chivas USA franchise folded. Extremely happy to find his way to the Rapids, Burling boasted to his new teammates that he and Riley were back as the original “homegrown” players.
“We’ve been joking with [Dillon] Serna that we’re the original ‘homegrowns,’ the old-timer homegrowns,” Burling said. “I think there’s four Colorado guys now, so we’ve been giving Shane [O’Neill] and Dillon a hard time about the ‘OG’ homegrowns we are.”
Noting that his parents still live in Monument, aunts and uncles live in Colorado Springs, and his brother is flying in from Los Angeles, Burling said, “There will be some Burling jerseys in the crowd for sure.”
Dick’s Sporting Goods Park will have plenty of Riley jerseys too, according to the MLS veteran from Colorado Springs. Riley always received plenty of ticket requests when he suited up for visitors in the past. “Usually when I came to town I requested 30-plus tickets,” Riley said. “So I try to sort that out, and that’s cutting it at 30. I’ve already had friends and family let me know they’ll be at games and are getting season tickets, so it’s wonderful to be back in the home state.”
Home for dinner, Riley has been following his mother’s insistence. “I was born and raised in Colorado Springs,” the former Colorado Springs Charger said. “My mom still lives down there, so it’s fantastic to be back with her, eating some home-cooked meals, and obviously I have a lot of friends still in the area, so it’s great. She wants me there for breakfast too.”
Two years apart, Burling and Riley have a solid history with each other from their younger days, and they admit it’s nice to be reuniting where it all started for them. “James and my brother [Jimmy] are the same age, and I remember going to watch their club games after our club games,” recalled Burling, laughing at the thought of Riley all over the field. “I remember James as a goalie in this terrible sky-blue jersey. If the team was losing he’d be up front, and if the team was winning he’d be in the back playing goalie.”
“We played some hoops and soccer,” Riley remembered. “I played with his brother Jimmy, who was our sweeper, but we actually had a very good team that won state cup at U-16. We had great coaches — Lou Sagastume, Mooch Myernick was our coach for a bit, and Mark McGuiness. I remember beating the Colorado Rush that year.”
Standing 6’5”, Burling was a four-year letterman in basketball and soccer at Lewis-Palmer, serving as captain for both teams his junior and senior years. He made the all-state academic teams in both sports for four straight years, and was the State Cup MVP in 2002. Ten years later, he was between clubs after leaving Montreal in 2012. Burling played 90 minutes with the Rapids reserve team while on trial with the team in May. Around the same time, he also trained with Sint-Truiden in Belgium and Kickers Offenbach in the German third division, hoping to join the payroll. But now he’s back home.
Anchoring Colorado’s revamped back line, Riley and Burling grew up hoping to play for the Rapids, starting with the first games at the old Mile High Stadium.
“All my best soccer memories have come in Colorado,” Burling said. “Winning the state title in high school, club games across the state, going to Mile High Stadium on the 4th of July and watching fireworks after the Rapids games, just tons of memories from Rapids games.”
Burling said his parents are very happy with his return, but they were wary until it actually happened.
“It’s a bit surreal all the way around,” Burling said. “When I first told my parents about the move, they didn’t want to get too excited. They’re extremely happy to have me back home playing in front of them, and they’ve been big supporters of my career. They’re MLS fans and watch every MLS game and they know how this league is and how players can move around. So they’re never too high or too low.”
Riley enjoyed an influential contact when he became an original Rapids faithful. “In 1996, I was at the inaugural home game as a U12 wishing to be on the field,” Riley recalled. “It’s deep-rooted. When Glenn Myernick was the coach, I used to be able to get in the locker room with his son, Travis. So, I’ve always been close to the club.”
Which is why Riley really wanted to be in Colorado playing, even after offers to move into other roles outside of MLS following last season. “I had a couple of options on the table, but I wanted it to be the right fit. I told my agent I wanted to go to certain organizations, and obviously Colorado being back home was one of them.”
Offers came on and off the field. “Within soccer,” Riley said. “I was offered an assistant coaching job at my alma mater Wake Forest. It was weighing both those decisions and how my body felt and ultimately being close to home, my mom, and friends and family was the ultimate decision, especially after I still have something to give and my body felt good after some intensive rehab this offseason.”
However, for all the feel-good, reunion stories that have come out, both players would love nothing more than Colorado’s first win in 2015. For both to have a part in that would just add another chapter to their local history together. “Lots of friends and family will be there [Saturday], and it’s great for them. But at the same time, we’re looking to get a win. If we can do that at home this weekend, that will be even more special,” Burling said.