On Jan. 9, 2015, Orlando City signed Colombians Carlos Rivas and Cristian Higuita from Deportivo Cali. The signings were a part of Adrian Heath and Paul McDonough’s plan to build long-term, sustained success through a combination of young, developing talent and veterans. However, only one of those players seemed to be working out for the Lions.
While Higuita was a star defensive midfielder coveted by Italian giants Internazionale, Rivas was a top striker for the Colombian side, scoring 13 goals in 36 first-team appearances. His strike rate was key in the club capturing the 2014 Superliga Colombiana.
Due to his transfer fee, Rivas came into Orlando as one of the club’s three Designated Players, alongside Brazilian superstar Kaká and Honduran striker Bryan Rochez. While signed as a young DP and largely due to the transfer fee, the designation left Rivas with great expectations by Orlando City fans.
Heath initially deployed Rivas as a striker at the beginning of the 2015 season but he was soon replaced by No. 1 draft pick Cyle Larin, who would go on to score 17 goals and win MLS Rookie of the Year, in Heath’s 4-2-3-1 formation. When Rivas got back into the lineup, he was largely played on the wing. With the young Colombian’s lack of size and exceptional speed, the position seemed to be a natural fit. Except it wasn’t.
Despite being placed in the midfield, Rivas was seen playing with a striker’s mentality. He was unwilling to chase balls played to the corner by Kaká and displayed his shoot-first mindset, often taking shots 35 yards from goal. When Heath was replaced by former Real Salt Lake and New York City FC boss Jason Kreis, the Lions’ new coach decided to keep the same 4-2-3-1 formation which left Rivas in the midfield or on the sideline.
Near the end of the 2016 season, Kreis began to show signs that he would change from Heath’s 4-2-3-1 formation to the traditional 4-4-2 formation used at his two former clubs. This move meant that Rivas would be able to switch back to the forward role while keeping Larin, who has since become a league star, in the lineup.
During the 2016 season, Rivas made it clear that he was much more comfortable playing as a forward than in the midfield, both by his play and in interviews. This season, Rivas has shown tremendous improvement over the past two seasons, becoming a key part of the Lions lineup each week.
While certainly Rivas’ hard work during the preseason — something noted by Kreis — has had an impact on the 23-year-old’s performances this season, the biggest improvement has been in his comfort level. Rivas was clearly playing a position that he didn’t want to be playing for most of the past two seasons and it showed. Now, back to playing forward, Rivas is showing the production promised by Heath and McDonough when he was signed and is living up to his designation.
This season, Rivas has been the perfect partner for Orlando’s star striker Cyle Larin. His ability to send exquisite balls into the box, use his speed to win balls, and use his body to shield have been on full display. While hard work on the training field has certainly impacted Rivas’ production this year, putting the young forward in his desired position has made him the player fans thought they were getting two years ago.