Draft pick makes Jones-Riley first Tallahassee native in MLS
By St. Clair Murraine
Outlook Staff Writer
One night a few days before Christmas, Jaden Jones-Riley found himself feeling a little restless. It was the eve of the Major League Soccer SuperDraft.
Jones-Riley, who had gotten over a case of COVID-19 a day earlier, worried about hearing his name called. The SuperDraft is held annually primarily for college players like Jones-Riley, who recently completed four years of playing at the University of Dayton.
“I was tossing and turning all night,” said Jones a former standout at Leon High School. “I didn’t sleep very well.”
Nevertheless, on draft day he felt a rush as the Portland Timbers made him the 73rd overall pick in the third round of the draft. That made him the first Tallahassee native taken in a MLS draft.
Things will begin moving fast for Jones-Riley from this point. He reports to camp later this month to begin preparing to start the season in late February. However, the 21-year-old defender will have to earn a spot on the first or second squad to determine his pay scale.
Making the first team means he plays at the top level right away. The alternative is the MLS developmental league Next Pro for players under 23 years old.
“Obviously, I’m going to try my best to make the professional squad because that is my dream,” Jones-Riley said.
Jones-Riley positioned himself for the draft by attending a MLS combine with the Nashville Soccer Club. He also participated in the Midwest Pro Combine.
Jones-Riley’s teammate Xavier Zengue was also drafted by Columbus Crew, marking the first time that the Flyers had two players drafted in the same year.
Jones-Riley, who also ran track at Leon, could have easily become a football player. His father Eric Riley played cornerback at FSU and later in the NFL and USFL.
Jones-Riley opted for soccer and by age 12 had watched so much FIFA video games that he decided to make playing soccer a career.
“We all have our calling,” he said. “Soccer is mine. … I really wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
He insisted that he couldn’t even be swayed by the fact that soccer is a sport that’s more popular in foreign countries.
“I already knew about it, but soccer is a world I hadn’t explored before. As soon as I got into it, it was just hard for me to get out.”
During the years that he was helping the Lions make it into the high school postseason, he also was ranked one of the top state players in age-bracket play. He also was on the radar as a prospect in the Olympic Development Program.
Andy Warner, who coached Jones-Riley during early development and at the age-group level, said he has the talent to be a forward if he wanted to play that position. Warner, Maclay High School coach who has extensive involvement in soccer on several levels, expects him to make Portland’s first team.
“He has a body of work,” Warner said. “He checked off all of the boxes; competitive team, did well at state-level and he went to a couple showcases and did really well and the rest is history.”
What kind of history Jones-Riley makes depends on his continued commitment to the strong work ethic that he has shown, Warner said.
“He has got to identify the position that the coach is looking at and he’s got to own it like he belongs,” Warner said. “He has matured and that’s the big thing.”
During his senior season at Dayton, Jones-Riley played in every game for the Flyers. He was named to the Atlantic 10 All-Conference Second Team. During his career, he had five goals and five assists in 51 games.
“Jaden is a tremendous story of a young student-athlete developing over his four-year career,” Flyers head coach Dennis Currier said in a statement. “We always believed he had the attributes of being a pro, but needed the time to develop. This year, he was one of the most athletic right backs in the country.”
Ultimately Jones-Riley would like to play soccer in a European league. Achieving that would give him a platform to show that Tallahassee has top-flight soccer talent, he said.
“It’s everything. There are a lot of great soccer players in town (and) this means a lot to me that I can show that we produce soccer talent, too,” he said. “It gives me a lot of pride to show other people.”
Right now, though, he is focused on making his name in the MLS.
“I’m so eager,” Jones-Riley said. “I’ve been training for this all my life. I’m so eager to go out and prove that I deserve this.”