(WPRI) – Imagine being a teenager walking into school one day stressing over if there was going to be a pop quiz or not then all of the sudden the intercom goes off.
It’s not about what the lunch special is going to be that day, but rather about you. The announcer tells the whole school that you not only signed a Homegrown deal with the local MLS team, but that you also had been called into a US national team camp for the U-16 side.
This was the reality that Damian Rivera faced as a young teenager, and his life has been only up from there.
Hailing from Cranston, soccer has always been a part of Rivera’s life.
“I remember my mom put me in a local futsal league in Providence,” Rivera said. “I was about five years old when I first started, and I used to always pick up the ball with my hands.”
River quickly learned the rules. He developed from town soccer, to the club level, then eventually to the New England Revolution’s U-14 academy team.
Rivera became an instant star throughout his three plus seasons. He accumulated 90 appearances with 41 goals at the U-14, U-16, U-17 and U-19 levels.
These performances attracted the attention of the MLS staff. In what was arguably one of the biggest months of his life, November 2019, Rivera signed a Homegrown player contract – a deal allowing MLS teams to bring players straight from their academies to the league – followed by his call up to the youth national team.
The deal made the winger just the seventh Revolution Academy product to sign a Homegrown deal, and more notably the second from Rhode Island after Isaac Angking in 2018.
While Angking has since moved on from the Revs making stops in Charlotte, Hartford and now Columbus, the midfielder was the one to really take Rivera under his wing.
Being the first two players from Rhode Island gave them something to bond over and the reason they became so close.
“Me and Isaac [Angking] were very close my first year,” Rivera said. “He brought me along with him, and I looked up to him, Nicolas Firmino, and [Justin] Rennicks as well. I remember my first year, those were the guys I looked up to and they showed me the way.”
Struggling for minutes with the first team Rivera was given the opportunity to play with Revs II to gain some valuable experience.
It took Rivera just 10 games to make an impact on the score sheet with a goal. Although it may have been longer than he expected, Rivera logged over 400 minutes during this stretch, minutes that were invaluable towards his development.
“I think over the past few years for me, and my development as a player, it’s important to get those 90 minute games,” Rivera said. “Over a full season, you have to continue to play a significant amount of minutes, and for me it helped a lot.”
Rivera continued to get the minutes under his belt, and before even touching the field for the first team, he had already played over 1,500 professional minutes.
Concurrently the Rhode Islander was training with the MLS team and learning from the tenured players like Carles Gil and Andrew Farrell on what it means to play in this league, and how to make a name for yourself in New England.
“There’s a lot of guys that help in different ways, but I look up to the vets, and they’re all good guys that give good feedback to me,” Rivera said.
Rivera’s first MLS start was a very memorable one. Just a few miles down the road at Gillette Stadium, he became the third player in MLS history to score in the first minute of his first career start.
“This year has been going good so far,” Rivera said. “At the beginning of the year I started off with Revs II and I scored some goals there. That gave me confidence to go up with the first team, and I think from there I came in with the idea of trying to do the same thing.”
With confidence comes drive and motivation to get better and better each day. This combined with New England’s recent track record of sending players to the top leagues in the world made Foxborough the perfect club for Rivera to develop.
“The dream for everybody is to play in Europe, and for me I think I’m in the right place right now. Hopefully one day that will be me,” Rivera said.
It wasn’t too long ago Rivera was looking up to his teammates. Now at 19 years old he finds himself being a role model for kids across New England, especially ones from his home state.
“I remember being a kid and looking up to Diego Fagundez,” Rivera said. “Now to be the player playing for the Revs and having younger kids look up to you is great.”
“I think I’m a good role model for a lot of kids in Rhode Island who are playing soccer and wanting to go pro.”