4_30_22 RiveraVsMiami

FOXBOROUGH, Mass.Damian Rivera packed a trio of firsts into one memorable moment on Saturday night, and in the process helped the New England Revolution to a much-needed 2-0 win over Inter Miami CF in front of a season-high crowd of 25,509 fans at Gillette Stadium.

Rivera didn’t wait long to mark his first MLS start with his first MLS goal, finding the back of the net in the first minute – after just 52 seconds to be exact – and became the first player to score in the first minute of their first start since Matias Mantilla did it for Real Salt Lake all the way back in August 2007.

“That was the plan, yes,” sporting director and head coach Bruce Arena joked when asked about the quick start. “That’s exactly what we planned.”

Jokes aside, there has, in fact, always been a plan with Rivera. The Cranston, R.I., native was signed to a Homegrown deal when he was just 16 years old in 2019, and the club has taken their time developing him through first-team training sessions and extensive playing time with Revolution II. While shining at the USL League One and MLS NEXT Pro levels, Rivera waited patiently for his opportunities in MLS, totaling just one substitute appearance and 28 minutes in his first two seasons with the first team.

But 2022 has been a different story, and Rivera had already made a pair of substitute appearances in recent weeks before playing 72 minutes – coincidentally his jersey number – on Saturday night.

“It’s just getting better,” Arena said of what he’s seen from Rivera to earn his shot. “It’s his third year with us and we saw improvements this year in preseason. He’s played well with the second team and last week in D.C. I thought he gave us a good 30 minutes and he continues to make progress.

“We’ve got to pick the right times to give these young players an opportunity and [Rivera’s] only, I don’t even know his age, 20 years old? 19? You know, so I think it’s important that you don’t put him in at the wrong time and damage your confidence. So, the timing has to be right. It’s never perfect trying to figure that out. But I think he's been brought along in a manner where he can step on the field, especially in the home game and try to produce, and he certainly did tonight.”

The goal itself belied Rivera’s age and experience, as the teenager took two touches to pull the ball out of his feet before blasting a left-footed drive past Inter Miami goalkeeper Nick Marsman at the near post. It wasn’t a tap-in. It wasn’t a deflection. It was a certified banger, and he’ll remember it forever.

“In the Academy I always used to go to the first team games and watching [Carles] Gil play, I thought he was a spectacular player,” Rivera said of Gil, who provided the assist on his goal. “To play with him, it’s incredible. Obviously I wasn’t thinking about scoring a goal at that time with the first team, but to actually score a goal, I can’t describe the words.”

Rivera said he had “a bunch” of friends and family in attendance to celebrate his first goal, and witness firsthand the reward for all his hard work these past two years. The word on the talented teenager was always that his ability going forward was unquestioned, but he needed to fine tune other areas of his game to contribute at the MLS level. Based on Saturday night, he seems to be well on his way.

“I think this year, definitely a big change for me,” said Rivera, praising the Sports Performance and Sports Science staff. “I think I’ve gotten more fit. Some of the guys here, like Jarryd [Phillips] and James [Collins] have helped me. I feel fitter, and I just wanted to get a chance on the field. I did and I took the best of it.”

Saturday night’s first goal will always be a cherished memory for Rivera, but the objective now is to keep progressing so he can continue piling up more memories, and his teammates who see him on the training ground every day have all the confidence in the world that he can do just that.

“I just told him even in our pregame huddle on the field, I literally said to him, ‘show the world, show the fans what you show us in training every single day. Take players on. Be a handful,’” said Matt Turner. “And he went out, he did that, and he scored, and I couldn’t be happier for him because he’s a quiet kid, but he works really, really hard. He’s been grinding over the past few seasons.

“He has a lot of talent and a lot of potential, but he has to take this performance and continue to build on it.”