CHICAGO – The MLS SuperDraft has always been a place of dreams, joy and gratitude, a moment for aspiring players to mark a milestone in their path towards a professional career.
Even in a 2019 edition packed with amazing stories, few who took the stage at McCormick Place on Friday had more to cherish than Sergio Rivas.
“My story is very unique,” an emotional Rivas explained to MLSsoccer.com after his selection by the San Jose Earthquakes with the second pick of the second round, “because I’ve worked so hard to get here.
“I think about everything that I’ve gone through, and I overcame every single step.”
The Seattle University product overcame the odds just to make it into draft contention in the first place.
Born in Mexico, Rivas and his family migrated north from Chihuahua to Albuquerque, New Mexico – “we’re all immigrants,” as he put it – when he was 7 years old. He grew up under humble circumstances, far from the U.S. Soccer Development Academy and the North American youth game’s usual hot spots. As an undocumented immigrant, he would eventually qualify for the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program.
He was fortunate to be taken under the wing of Justin Sells, technical director at youth club New Mexico Rush and an experienced coach who would go on to play a key role in Rivas’ journey towards a soccer career. Another stroke of luck propelled him forward when he got a chance to take part in an ODP (Olympic Development Program) event after several other players were unable to participate.
“I just took the path that Justin Sells basically told me to take, because he was a mentor for me and I trusted him. He told me, ‘you don’t need to go to DA [clubs], I’ll get you the [visibility] you need,’ and so on,” Rivas said. “When it got to my junior year, fortunately I got some looks from Seattle University and Valpo.
“I know a lot of coaches saw the change from DA and club soccer, maybe that wouldn’t translate to the university level, D1, but I did.”
A true No. 10, he scored 19 goals and 27 assists in 85 games over his NCAA career with the Redhawks, showcasing an elegant fluidity on the ball that allowed him to bamboozle defenders with skill and imagination. But not all was well behind the scenes.
Living some 1,500 miles away from his tightly-knit family in a markedly different city and culture, unable to travel home more than once a year, Rivas found himself locked in a battle with depression.
“I’m a very family-oriented person, so being away from my family for that long and not being able to fly because of financial – I mean, my family doesn’t come from a lot of money and I can’t fly back and forth [between Seattle and Albuquerque],” he said.
“So all that took a toll on me. I was playing up there, a lot of pressure, so I had different problems that just caved in and I found myself in a very deep spot.”
Crediting “the help of all my teammates and the people around me,” Rivas worked through those difficulties over his college career, then set about carving out a chance to impress MLS teams. A prized invite to the Combine enhanced his prospects, and even though an injury limited his participation in Orlando, he still caught the eye of new Quakes coach Matias Almeyda, whose initial appointment had excited Rivas’ father enough to prompt him to call Sergio and proclaim that San Jose was the team for him.
This is in spite of the fact that the Rivas family are supporters of Club América, fierce rivals of the Chivas Guadalajara side Almeyda led to multiple trophies from 2015-18.
“I never told him that,” joked Rivas of his family’s loyalties to Almeyda’s former enemies. “Never mention that!”
Though many clubs were drawn to his skills, Rivas presently counts as an international player due to his DACA status, which surely contributed to him slipping into the second round. Almeyda and the Quakes were impressed enough to pick him anyway.
Even after all that, Rivas didn’t have the means to attend the SuperDraft itself. Until Sells – who himself was already on site at the United Soccer Coaches convention in Chicago – got wind of his situation.
“I wasn’t going to come to the draft,” explained Rivas. “My coach, Justin Sells, he’s been my development coach for 12, 15 years now, he called me and said, ‘hey, you worked to get to this place, how are you not here? There’s no way you are not here. Why are you not here?’
“I got home Wednesday night – Thursday morning, 1:30 in the morning. Justin calls me, says ‘hey, you’re leaving at 6 in the morning to Chicago.’ I said, ‘alright!’ So I’m very thankful for that, to live this moment. It’s once in a lifetime.”
Next week Rivas’ journey continues as he reports for San Jose’s preseason, where he’ll try to earn his place in Almeyda’s renovation project.