ORLANDO, Fla. – Every team has a player who polarizes fan opinion and, for Orlando City SC, that man is Carlos Rivas, a 23-year-old who always seems poised for the big breakout but hasn’t quite delivered. Until now.
The Colombian speedster definitely turned heads at the New York Red Bulls last week, despite the Lions’ 3-1 defeat. Rivas grabbed his career-best fifth goal of the season, to go with five assists, and is starting to make it hard for Orlando City head coach Jason Kreis to leave him out of the starting lineup.
“Absolutely. We need to see those players show that they are still part of this and they are really hungry when they get the opportunities. I think Carlos did that [last Saturday],” Kreis said earlier this week.
Rivas arrived from Deportivo Cali in January 2015 as a raw but exciting talent and showed glimpses of that potential in his first season without ever securing a regular place. He managed four assists but his shooting left a lot to be desired, failing to register a single goal in 63 attempts.
He improved in 2016 with three goals and four assists while playing significantly fewer minutes, and started to show he could be a potent partner alongside main hitman Cyle Larin, but fans still chafed at Rivas taking up a Designated Player slot. This season, he has given a more consistent account of himself, and Kreis believes his time is fast approaching.
“I actually think [his development has been] excellent,” Kreis said. “It’s been slower than everybody wanted but he was a young player in a foreign country for the first time, didn’t understand the language or culture, so obviously there were going to be difficulties.
“But, from the time I’ve been here, his game has come on ten-fold. Even from the beginning of the season until now, I think he’s shown a marked improvement and, if he continues to do that, this is a top, top talent.”
Rivas originally signed on a three-year deal from Deportivo, with a club option for an additional two years. That initial period will be up at the end of December, but all signs within the team point to the Lions being eager to extend his stay, so there is little indication he is playing for his future in the last 10 games of the season.
Rivas himself admits he has had his ups and downs early on, struggling to get to grips with life in America as well as the language. Rivas still needs an interpreter at his interview sessions but he now feels settled and, with a one-year-old son, Dylan, insists he has grown up as both player and person.
“The first two years, I did not adapt very well,” he explained via the club’s translator. “This year I have been able to adapt a lot better and [I feel I] have improved, which is really important.
“I feel I have more hierarchy now, I have adapted better, and I have become a more mature player. [My biggest difficulty] has been in learning English, but I have been able to get through some difficult games, and that has helped me the most.”
A healthy dose of confidence has also done wonders for Rivas’ psyche. Few players work harder than he does on the training ground and he consistently covers more ground than anyone else during games. He confirmed that he feels he has made an important breakthrough this season.
“I feel really good,” he said. “I think I’ve done a good job. They have given me a chance to play and I have performed well. Thankfully, I have scored five goals now. [At the start of the year] my goal was to be in the starting lineup in more games. As of now, I have accomplished my goal and I hope it continues for the remainder of the season.”
Rivas also relishes the extra competition that the arrival of Dom Dwyer has brought to the squad. The Colombian was originally the odd man out as Kreis partnered Dwyer with Larin, but, with Dwyer sidelined last weekend due to injury, Rivas flourished in the two-man striker role, and the head coach acknowledges he now has a harder task in establishing his starting XI.
“Yes, it’s good in every team for there to be competition among forwards, [as well as] the midfielders and defense. It’s normal,” Rivas confirmed. “There will always be competition. I don’t think there is any [extra] pressure because you just have to work hard every day and prove that you can play.”
There is little doubt these days that Rivas can play, but one question remains – his best position. Kreis has deployed him in a left-wing role, as well as on the right of midfield, coming in from the flank to attack defenders off his pile-driving left foot, and up front in a traditional 4-4-2.
But ask the player himself and there is not a shred of doubt where he thinks he should be. “Center forward,” he insists with a voice as serious as his demeanor.