A New York Soccer Story: Puerto Rico FC’s Sidney Rivera

Sidney Rivera training for Puerto Rico FC. Image, Puerto Rico FC

By JAKE NUTTING

PRFC logoSoccer isn’t merely Sidney Rivera‘s profession, it’s the reason he exists.

Rivera’s parents, Carolos and Ana, both immigrated to the United States mainland as teenagers and found each other in Brooklyn through the sport.

“They met playing in Red Hook, actually,” Rivera said. “My mom and my uncle were playing together there and somehow my dad and my mom decided to go out one night when they met and the rest is history.”

The Rivera family settled on Bodine Street in the West Brighton section of Staten Island. That is where Rivera, 23, picked up the game. He dove into the world of soccer before he even had his fifth birthday when his father, who played abroad for a few years, started coaching at Staten Island United.

Once he reached the fifth grade, the family packed up and moved to New Jersey. The move hasn’t caused an identity crisis for Rivera, though. He still identifies as a New Yorker through and through.

“I moved to Jersey when I was probably 11 and my family has lived there ever since, but I go back to New York,” he said. “My grandma and my uncle live in Staten Island and I have another uncle that lives in Brooklyn. I’m always back there. I consider myself a New Yorker. I don’t consider myself from Jersey. I feel as though I grew up in New York even though I left when I was 11. I remember growing up playing in a bunch of tournaments, eating that New York pizza right after the game.”

The move to New Jersey didn’t impede Rivera’s development. He earned recognition as a standout midfielder and forward at Match Fit Academy for several years, was picked for the state’s ODP team and led North Hunterdon High School in Annandale with 19 goals and 9 assists.

Becoming a professional was in Rivera’s sights at an early age. Not only did he have the example set by his father and uncle, he had local inspiration through the New York/New Jersey MetroStars of Major League Soccer.

“I was fortunate enough when I was younger that we had season tickets to the MetroStars,” he recalled. “I was a fan of the MetroStars at such a young age, watching Tim Howard as a young kid, watching Michael Bradley, Amado Guevara, Youri Djorkaeff. Watching all these guys pass through with the MetroStars, and actually being there to watch live, I think that kinda sparked my interest in wanting to be a pro. In all the elementary school yearbooks they’d always ask what you want to be when you’re older and I’d always answer a professional soccer player.”

At 17, Rivera left home to join the Old Dominion University soccer team in Virginia. It was a big adjustment for the teenager, who wasn’t even old enough to sign all the NCAA paperwork required when he got to school.

“It was tough, but the guys there, the culture of the team and how the teammates treated each other, pushed each other, definitely shaped me to be a better player and person,” he said.

His four-year career with the Monarchs wasn’t all smooth sailing. A torn ACL in his sophomore season and an inability to crack the starting lineup regularly the rest of the time left his professional prospects uncertain. That all changed in the final month of his senior season. With Old Dominion in danger of missing out on the Conference USA tournament, Rivera was inserted into the starting lineup for the last two regular-season games and notched a goal in each start to get the school over the finish line. In the conference tournament, Rivera scored four goals in three games to help the Monarchs claim their first conference title. He followed up that showing with two goals in Old Dominion’s opening round win over St. Francis in the NCAA tournament.

This burst of productivity in the final weeks of his college career was enough to catch the eye of MLS scouts, resulting in Orlando City picking Rivera in the third round of the MLS draft.

“It was something that I really didn’t expect,” he said. “There were a lot of ups and downs in my college career. My last eight or so games was when I actually got the opportunity and confidence to play every game and that’s when I started scoring goals. There were a lot of other guys that had played more in four years and had done well with goals and assists more consistently. I was lucky enough that this happened to me and now I am where I am. I tell everyone that wants or needs advice to keep going, keep working. I know it’s tough. Things in soccer can change very fast.”

Rivera liked the plan Orlando laid out for him when he joined. Instead of having Rivera languish on the bench as a rookie in MLS, Coach Adrian Heath wanted to see him get meaningful minutes, so the youngster was sent on loan to Louisville City in the United Soccer League. Unfortunately, Rivera’s loan to Louisville in 2015 coincided with Matt Fondy‘s MVP and Golden Boot season.

“I went to Louisville and Matt Fondy, who’s now in North Carolina, was there and scoring goals,” he said. “What can I do? He was the captain, he was scoring goals and I just got sent there on loan. The coach wasn’t going to change the way he played. It’s not like because I’m an MLS player, he’s going to put me ahead of who he’s got scoring goals.”

Things eventually soured so much in Louisville that the team sent him back to Orlando before the halfway point of the season. Rivera thought he was being a good professional by mimicking behavior he saw from Kaká in Orlando, but instead he only ended up alienating the Louisville coaching staff.

“When I was in Orlando I saw Kaká had his own physio who works with him in the gym before and after training,” he said. “I looked at that example and I thought if I’m not playing I need to find a way to keep myself sharp. I went out and I got my own trainer and I kinda kept it quiet. We had an agreement where I didn’t have to give him anything, just help him out on social media. So I posted some pictures he took of me and thanked him. I did that and it didn’t sit well with the people in Louisville. That’s really why things didn’t go well with Louisville.”

A second loan that year to the Pittsburgh Riverhounds was sidetracked before it even started when it was delayed nearly a month as Louisville dragged its feet releasing Rivera from its roster. Orlando eventually released him at the end of the season. Still, he looks back on his one year in MLS as a useful learning experience.

“At the end of the day, I learned a lot about the profession, the game, myself and who I am in that year,” he said. “I think I improved a lot. I think I learned a lot about the forward position, the movements, the little intricacies in the pro game thanks to Adrian Heath and all the guys in Orlando. Anthony Pulis really helped me a lot. That’s the game of soccer. Only 11 guys play and you need to be ready when your time comes. If you don’t grab your chance, who knows when that other chance is going to come.”

Rivera’s search for a new team landed the Staten Island native on another island. The launch of Puerto Rico FC last July for the second half of the 2016 North American Soccer League season gave Rivera the chance to get accustomed to a new kind of island life. That Carmelo Anthony, star forward of Rivera’s hometown New York Knicks, was the one providing the financial backing of the team was an added bonus.

“I’m a Knicks fan, man. Unfortunately,” he said with a laugh. “Even though our Knicks aren’t that great, it’s a cool thing to be a part of Melo’s team. He was here this past weekend, and it was cool to just be close to an NBA superstar and learn a little bit from his as well. As an athlete, he can understand our perspective and we can understand his, too.”

Sidney Rivera participating in the 2015 Puerto Rican Day Parade in New York CIty

Sidney Rivera at the 2015 Puerto Rican Day Parade in New York City.

Now in his second season with Puerto Rico, Rivera hopes that he’s found the right place. He’s also grateful to play in a league that gives him a reason to return home a few times a year to play the New York Cosmos, which his club does again on Friday night at MCU Park in Brooklyn.

“I’m always excited to be back in New York. I love the city,” he said. “For me, there’s no other place. New York City is the best place in the world. I get to go home, be around my parents, my family, my friends. I’m gonna run into problems though when I need to ask for 20 tickets for the Cosmos match.”