For a season and a half under Adrian Heath, Carlos Rivas was used almost exclusively as a prototypical winger. He has all the tools for it: blistering pace, a good eye for a cross, and a cannon of a left foot. His opportunities were limited, in part due to inexperience and in part due to a lack of consistency.
He had his bright moments on the left side and managed to make 40 league appearances under Heath, but he could never cement his place in the lineup or live up to his Designated Player tag; he seemed destined to be on the subs bench until he either broke out or was sold. Sure, he would have the occasional multi-assist game that would spark hope in the supporters that he had finally put it all together, but then he would be inexplicably dropped and not resurface for several weeks.
When Heath was let go, his situation seemed to deteriorate. Jason Kreis seemed to prefer Brek Shea off the bench. When Matías Pérez García was brought in and Kaká shifted wide left, Rivas seemingly drifted further down the totem pole into the purgatory of being too good for Orlando City B but not good enough to be a regular contributor for the first team. After all, Kreis’ preferred diamond formation has no use for traditional wingers. Rumors began to pop up about him being shopped to other clubs, domestically and abroad. It seemed as if his time in purple was coming to a swift and bitter end.
And when Cyle Larin was pulled away to represent Canada, leaving a gaping offensive hole, the natural options for Kreis seemed to be Júlio Baptista or Hadji Barry. Yet Kreis surprised everyone when he trotted out Rivas -- who had not seen game action in a month at that point -- as the man to lead the Lions’ line against Montreal. There were certainly flashbacks to Rivas’ former MLS appearances as a No. 9, which consisted mainly of offside flags and rocketed shots over the crossbar.
But Carlos surprised everyone, except Kreis that is.
He was blanketed by two defenders, but his vision and touch found Shea wide open in front of goal for the equalizer. He then managed to corral a ball and flick it to Kaká, while falling over, for his second assist. He even used his quickness to test Evan Bush and drew a penalty. And when he tracked a long ball down in the open field, he didn’t send it high into the stands but calmly into the back of the net. It was Rivas’ most complete game for Orlando City and looked nothing like his former attempts as a lone striker.
Rivas’ career in Orlando has seemingly been revitalized by this new appearance. It’s not just because he played well, but because he played well at a relevant position to Kreis’ desired 4-4-2 diamond. Kreis loves quick strikers that can play off hold-up target men like Larin. Rivas had the experience playing as a striker in Colombia before coming to MLS, but he had yet to show that he was capable here.
The most telling thing may be that, according to Kreis’ comments before the Montreal match, he considers Rivas a striker on the depth chart rather than a winger, saying “[Rivas] was a player who, from the very first match against Stoke, did a really nice job and if Cyle Larin’s not in his position, he would probably already have gotten a few opportunities [in that spot].”
And Carlos took his chance with the opportunity that he got. Now, instead of being a piece that Orlando must offload in order to adhere to Kreis’ vision, Rivas has the potential to step in and become a vital part of the new era. Rivas’ surprising development into not just a serviceable striker but the kind of player that Kreis needs for his play style says a lot about what’s going on behind the scenes at Orlando City HQ. The supporters have seen the on-field changes, most notably the changing of the guard from Heath’s defensive destroyers Cristian Higuita and Darwin Cerén to the more possession-dominant Antonio Nocerino and Servando Carrasco.
These are the small details that show the progression of the club. With a competitive team in the thick of the playoff race, Kreis couldn’t simply scratch the lot and start over. A full-blown overhaul in July likely would have meant a downward spiral for Orlando City’s season and it wasn’t entirely necessary; the pieces are there for Kreis and his staff to work with.
But even using Heath’s old 4-2-3-1 due to personnel, the ideology and tactical shift has already improved the team’s results. Once Kreis has full control over players and a full winter to work with them, the possibilities for drastic improvement are there. It means there will still be changes in the offseason, but perhaps they won’t be as drastic as first assumed. Higuita can still become Kreis’ ideal No. 6 at the base of the diamond. Rivas could become the quick secondary striker to play off Larin’s shoulder. Shea’s recent goal-scoring run could be a sign that he still has a place in midfield.
It will be a slow conversion process that won’t always be visible on the field. But with the uptick in fringe players’ performances, future seasons for Orlando City seem bright under Jason Kreis.