Sergio Rivas could hardly see. Could only find the soccer ball when it was right in front of him. Could barely make out teammates’ jerseys, and not their faces. He squinted, as if scrunching his face would yield clearer vision. Didn’t help. He sprinted ahead, but the grass was blurred, a faded forest green. Dusk was approaching—the pitch turning a muddy brown, the sky a charcoal black.
Now Rivas really couldn’t see. Only feel. But he had to perform. The now-22-year-old soccer player still remembers how the college scouts huddled in the stands at that tournament in Dallas back in 2013. They looked like tiny dots to Rivas, who at the time was a high school junior.
His defender pressured him, but his feet knew where the ball was, where it was supposed to go. They moved the ball, quickly, before the pressure closed in.
For years, Rivas had been playing this way. He could barely see, but growing up he didn’t have anything to compare that to—didn’t know it was different for anyone else. He figured everyone else just saw faint colors, faint shapes, as he did. And once he realized he didn’t see the same way others did, he still couldn’t do anything about it, so he just hid it. He didn’t want anyone to know, fearing that if they found out, they wouldn’t let him play anymore. When he had to take an eye exam at his school physical, he stressed over whether he could guess or make out just enough letters to be cleared to play.
So nobody knew during this match. Nobody knew that he wasn’t wearing glasses or contacts because he couldn’t afford to go to a doctor to get his eyes looked at and get a prescription. Nobody knew that he didn’t have health care because he was an undocumented immigrant.
He didn’t want people to know any of that. All he wanted them to know was what he could do with the ball, what he was about to do, what he’d pull off next. He dribbled up field, maneuvering in and out of traffic with grace. He was practically gliding as he kicked the ball toward the goal. His shot whirled into the back of the net.
Rivas catches his breath in the middle of a training session in Reno, Nevada, his second of the day. He looks toward the Sierra Nevada mountains in the distance, coated with snow. He tucks his hands into his shorts to stop from shivering. It’s 25 degrees on a February afternoon. It was so frigid the day before that he and his teammates wore ski masks to train.
Each player is wearing differently colored cleats: fuschia, lime, orange, green. Some have jerseys. Some don’t. None have endorsement deals. Three holes run down the right side of Rivas’ black shorts. He doesn’t care. He’ll slide, sprint, strain, do whatever he has to do to get the ball.
His endurance is his gift. “In most of the games, he led our team in distance covered,” says Ian Russell, his coach for Reno 1868 FC, a professional team in the United Soccer League (USL) Championship. “That’s his determination, his will to win, to cover ground, to compete.”
Rivas, a 5’10” midfielder, is here because he isn’t there. MLS. He was selected 26th overall in last year’s draft by the San Jose Earthquakes, and all he thinks about is getting there. Dominating there. There, there, there.
And he is certainly capable. Rivas’ technical ability is elite. He sees plays more quickly than most. He can take over games.
Professional soccer, however, hasn’t made it easy for a player like Rivas, a player who is undocumented.
MLS allows United States-based teams to have a maximum of eight international players on their 30-man rosters. The rest must go to domestic players, which the league defines as “either a U.S. citizen, a permanent resident (i.e., a green card holder), the holder of a certain other special status (e.g., has been granted refugee or asylum status) or a player who qualifies under the Homegrown International Rule.”
None of those categories covers Rivas.
Rivas identifies as a Mexican American. He’s lived in the U.S. since he was seven years old, when he migrated from Chihuahua, Mexico, to Albuquerque, New Mexico. “Mexico is not my home,” he says. “It’s where I lived for a couple of years, but my home is America.” But he is not an American citizen or a legal resident. He’s one of the 700,000 to 800,000 undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children and are now called “Dreamers.” Under the Obama-era program Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), he is protected from deportation and granted the right to work in the United States. But under the Trump administration, the future for DACA recipients is uncertain. In 2017, Trump announced that he would end the program. The Supreme Court is expected to rule on its legality this summer.
MLS could make an exception to consider “Dreamers” to be Americans, but so far it has not. (The league declined to comment on the situation or any possible solution for this story.) So Rivas faces the much tougher road of earning one of the international spots, which are usually awarded to established international players and not inexperienced players right out of college (Rivas starred for Seattle University from 2015 to 2018).
Russell thinks Rivas has a good chance of making it eventually, exception or not.
And even if much is out of Rivas’ control, he doesn’t view himself as stuck. In limbo. A victim. He is optimistic. Determined. He isn’t counting on politics or formulating a backup plan. He knows he cannot just be good. He cannot just be great. He has to be exceptional. Every play, every game.
Courtesy of Reno 1868 FC
He knows that even if he is the best player on the pitch, there is a chance he still won’t get that spot. But as Reno’s 2020 season begins this Friday, he tries to focus on what he can control.
“I will get there,” Rivas says. “It’s difficult. Who’s going to take that shot on an international, Mexican American? Who’s going to take a shot at him?
“I’m not giving up. I’m still here.”
His journey is not over.
In his early years in Mexico, Rivas was happiest when he was in the street, playing soccer with his cousins. He was never lonely. There were always five, six, seven cousins. Friends of cousins. That’s where he became competitive, playing one-on-one, two-on-two, in front of his family’s ranch. The ball became a best friend.
It was constant fun. He’d kick and kick, and he remembers how he could smell the tortillas his mom was making inside. Later, at the table with his family, she’d tell him, “More, more, you have to eat more,” even when he was too stuffed with tortillas and Coca-Cola for another bite. Family meals were sacred.
The family was well-off back then, Rivas says, and often traveled. His dad worked in a lumber company with Sergio’s uncle, his dad’s brother. But then that company dissolved after his dad’s brother died in a car crash. Mexico was also enduring an economic depression, and drug-related gang violence grew increasingly rampant. The area they lived in became unsafe.
Once, when Rivas was between ages five and seven—he can’t recall exactly—he was in the car with his cousin, who was playing music loud and driving fast. Too fast. Two trucks came and surrounded them and halted their path. Two large men in black masks, clutching guns, stepped out of the trucks. “Who are you?!” they yelled. Rivas’ cousin managed to get them out of the situation and back home.
The family left for America when Rivas was seven but came back once for a brief trip. On that trip, a top government official came over to the ranch for a big party. They were all playing beach volleyball. The next day, the family found out the official and his family had been killed. “170 shots to the body,” Rivas says. Rivas was terrified, imagining what might have happened if the killers had come to the ranch. “We all could have died,” he says.
“Now that I think about it,” he says, “thank God my parents chose to stay in America.”
Not that America was easy for him. Rivas was in third grade when he arrived, and his teacher expected him to know English right away. Of course, he didn’t, and Rivas would often get in trouble for speaking Spanish. He can still hear that teacher’s voice barking at him: “Detention! Detention!”
Then, the worst punishment. She had Rivas and his two Spanish-speaking friends lie face down during lunch, their noses touching the hard, dirty, cold floor, packed tightly next to each other. “Like soldiers. Side by side,” Rivas says. He was forced to learn English fast. He had to. Anything to escape that floor.
And still, he was treated differently than other students. For the school’s Christmas party, Rivas’ parents remember that every kid received a sock with candy. Everyone except for their son.
Rivas’ parents tried to protect him, fearful of what could happen if he bucked against any mistreatment. “You can’t fight. You can’t get in trouble with the cops. They’ll send you back right away,” they’d tell him. “You have to be really, really careful.”
Always, the spectre of losing America hung over them.
By the time he was a teenager, Rivas had fallen in love with soccer in a serious way, becoming a perfectionist about his practice and starting to rack up goals with ease in games.
Once, he stood on a baseball field for two hours while younger brother Isai recorded him because Rivas wanted to perfectly kick a ball and hit the top of the fence from 60 yards away. “He’d train in negative-degree weather, juggling for hours,” Isai says.
“His work ethic was something we’ve never seen before,” says Jared Montoya, a close friend who went on to play for Dakota Wesleyan University.
Friends began calling him “Golden Child” as his skill rose and he dominated for his youth club, New Mexico Rush, and at Cibola High.”He was a natural talent,” says Justin Sells, the technical director for New Mexico Rush. “Gifted with the ball. His technical ability was off the charts for a kid his age.”
Rivas was one of 36 players worldwide invited to train with Real Madrid in Spain at age 14. He’d become a Gatorade State Player of the Year. Still, he flew under the radar when it came to college recruiting. Part of that was because he couldn’t go to certain tournaments, like one in El Paso, because he’d have to go through checkpoints.
Some public colleges hesitated to recruit him once they found out about his status. He’d email coaches late into the night, hoping one would give him a chance. His family worried about him traveling with a college team, about something potentially going wrong with his ID. If this happens, then what would happen? They’d think through every scenario.
Sometimes, it seemed his college dream would never happen. One of his teachers told him the probability of playing college soccer was pretty low. But Rivas was unfazed. He’d go to school at 7 a.m., train at 2:30 p.m., then head to work as a cook (the same job as his dad)—which he started doing at age 16 to help his family, a choice he made himself—then go back to his family’s garage and run on the treadmill a few miles and complete 500 juggles. I have to get there, he’d think to himself, sometimes not going to sleep until 3 a.m., then doing it all again the next day. And the next day.
He’d fantasize about one day buying his brothers all the cleats they wanted, once he’d made it to MLS. That helped him push past the exhaustion he felt after long nights at the restaurant, especially when he had to close. He’d have to mop the floor, clean tabletops, carry big buckets of water outside. His back would burn, ache, but he’d think of his parents’ backs, how much they must have burned, ached. And he’d press on.
He didn’t attend many parties or hangouts. He had tunnel vision. He became competitive in everything he did, including restaurant work. He became the employee to close in the fastest time, cleaning everything, by himself, 20 minutes faster than the job would normally take two employees.
He didn’t complain or feel upset that he had to work as hard as he did, that he faced as many obstacles as he did.
Thank you, God, for giving me the opportunity to do these things, he’d tell himself, locking the restaurant up, walking into the deep-black night, before running a few miles. Thank you for letting me do what I love to do.
The long hours paid off when Seattle University, a private school, gave Rivas a full ride.
The original offer was for a 95 percent scholarship for Rivas’ first year, then 100 percent the next three. Rivas was going to have to pay somewhere between $3,000 and $5,000 as a freshman. The family planned to sell one of its cars to cover it. Rivas became a starter with a strong preseason, but coaches could sense that something was off. They brought him in and asked if it was the money, and he told them his dad was thinking about selling the car. The coaches told him not to worry about it and moved him up to a 100 percent scholarship.
That year, he was 17 years old, outperforming 22-year-olds. He was named the Western Athletic Conference’s top freshman and helped lead the team to the NCAA tournament’s Sweet 16.
“What I love about him is he’s not one-dimensional,” says Pete Fewing, Rivas’ coach at Seattle. “He can beat you on the dribble. He can beat you with a pass. He’s good on both feet. He’s silky smooth, and it’s really hard to predict what he’s going to do.”
It helped that when he came to Seattle, Rivas was able to get contacts through the team. He could finally see the ball.
In a four-year career, he became one of the top players in the country, making the All-WAC first team twice, scoring 19 goals (several that Fewing calls “world-class”) and finishing with 27 assists, second-most in conference history.
After his senior season, he was projected to be a top-10 pick on some MLS draft boards.
But as always, so much was out of his control.
Rivas sat in McCormick Place in Chicago in January 2019 to watch the MLS SuperDraft, to hear his name called. His parents, his entire family, were at home in Albuquerque, watching. Waiting.
Sells was with Rivas. Sells’ phone kept buzzing. MLS personnel were calling to ask, Is Sergio a U.S. citizen? Rivas kept hearing name after name called on the TV. Names that were not his.”That’s when I started falling through the cracks,” he says.
He was frustrated, watching himself slip into the second round. The Earthquakes selected him with the second pick of that round, 26th overall, and he was soon sent to Reno.
“I still feel like maybe the reason he did fall a little bit in the draft was because he was a foreigner,” Russell says. “It would take an international spot to sign him. Teams don’t want to waste those if they can help it.”
Sells, who has played in both MLS and the USL, agrees. “If he was a U.S. citizen, based on his combine he had, and playing in all the all-star games, he’s probably a top-five, top-10 pick,” Sells says. “Once word got out that he was undocumented and would take an international spot, I don’t think there’s a lot of MLS clubs that want to use an international spot on a college kid.”
Fewing, also a broadcaster for the Seattle Sounders FC, had conversations with two MLS general managers, a coach and a scout on draft day, all asking similar questions, which led him to the same conclusion: “If he had his green card, I know a couple teams that would have taken him higher in the draft.”
Still, Rivas was thrilled to achieve his lifelong dream. He was going to play professional soccer, even if it was in the USL. Back home, his entire family huddled around their red leather couch. Everyone was crying. “Yes!” his dad screamed. Isai nearly lost his voice, cheering so hard, his hand shaking from holding up his phone to record the moment. Rivas’ mom jumped up and down, thinking how far her son had come, how far he might go.
Rivas was just as effective in the first half of his first season with Reno as he had been in college, becoming a starter and scoring two goals in eight starts.
Then another setback, another loss of control.
Rivas started feeling pain in his lower back and abdomen. He had a hernia and needed surgery (luckily, covered by the team), which caused him to miss the majority of the second half of the season.
His MLS dream felt in peril.
Why is this happening right now? he’d think to himself. He was just starting to find his groove.
He’d go back to his apartment, high up in Harrah’s Casino, the bright lights and blaring sounds from the slot machines below keeping him awake. Sometimes he felt alone. Uncertain. There weren’t many places to go. Lake Tahoe, maybe. Or a drive across town. Chipotle, a favorite. But his mobility was limited.
He’d lie on his bed, stare at the walls of his room, and the negative thoughts would multiply:
Am I ever going to play again?
Maybe I should just quit.
They’re going to think I’m a crybaby. They’re going to think I can’t play at this level.
Are my parents still proud of me?
Are they afraid, too?
With the injury, he was forced to miss his return to Albuquerque for Reno’s game at New Mexico United in September. His mom and dad were in attendance anyway, cheering for Reno.
His dad, his biggest fan, has to work and cannot make it to many of Sergio’s games, often instead listening to the broadcast while working. He can hardly speak on game days because he is so proud of his son and so nervous for him. Watching his team in person, even with Sergio absent, he was prouder than ever, as was Mom. “Yeah, Reno! Let’s go, Reno!” they cheered.
But then fans began yelling at his family: “Shut up, Mexicans! Go back to your country! Go back to Mexico!” The hecklers wouldn’t stop. Rivas’ older brother wanted to say something, wanted to fight, but he restrained himself. His parents told him not to react.
“It’s just the world we live in,” Rivas says. “It’s hit me way harder than before. The way I walk around. The way people look at me because I’m brown. The way Trump’s talking about people being brown taking their jobs, calling them rapists. It definitely hurts.”
And obviously, for “Dreamers,” the fear goes beyond words.
“It’s frustrating and scary,” Fewing says. “You don’t know what will happen.”
“At any point, they can come to me and just kick me out,” Rivas says. “Which has always been a possibility, but now it’s even a pretty high chance.”
If it came to that, he could possibly still make his way back as a Mexican citizen, win an international spot on a USL or MLS team’s roster. Or he could be refused reentry to the U.S. for some set amount of time. Or there could be any number of other outcomes.
But Rivas can’t live in could.
While it’s all hanging in the balance, waiting on the Court, Rivas knows all he can do is focus on what he can control: giving his all to training and proving himself in matches.
When he was 10, Rivas started playing against much bigger kids. He told his dad that the kids were too big, too fast—that he couldn’t compete with them. “Yes, you can,” his dad told him. “They might be bigger, they might be faster, but there is always a way.” He’d have Rivas lay down and visualize breezing past his defender. “You have to think it. Then say that you can. Then your body will follow. Your body will find a way to do it.”
This is the attitude of this family—a family in which both parents often work well past overtime (his mom is a cook, too, and has worked her way up to manager) and persevere in the face of bigotry (customers have yelled at his mom: “Can I get somebody who actually speaks English?! F–king Mexicans!”).
Rivas has worked hard in rehab since having surgery about two and a half months ago. He feels about 90 percent healthy. The final 10 percent is getting his fitness back, he says. The injury has motivated him even more. He has more to prove.
Courtesy of Reno 1868 FC
“He looks good so far,” says Reno defender Thomas Janjigian. “A lot of guys don’t stick with it the way Sergio has.” Midfielder Sam Gleadle notices it, too. “There’s not a day I’ve seen him here where he isn’t motivated to make that jump.”
Rivas thinks of kids younger than him, hoping to inspire them. He often visits local schools in the area to talk to students, like Dilworth Middle School. The students there were staring up at him, hanging on every syllable. Standing at the front of the classroom, Rivas looked at them and saw himself. His younger self. The self that understood what it was like to have people tell him he wouldn’t make it.
One kid came up to him with a scowl on his face. He was having trouble at home. He was involved in selling drugs. But the more he talked to Rivas, the more he seemed to soften. The muscles in the boy’s cheeks relaxed. Rivas told him he didn’t have to act hard—didn’t have to go down the path he was going. He could pursue soccer, if he wanted, if he were determined enough, willing to work hard enough.
“Do you think I can really do it?” the boy asked.
“Yes, you can,” Rivas told him.
Rivas went back to his apartment, back to his own questions. About his future, his fears. The things he can and can’t control.
He tries to avoid thinking about political currents swirling around him. He tries to block out the negative thoughts. Tries not to be alone, so his mind doesn’t drift.
But sometimes when it does, he closes his eyes and meditates. He hears his father’s words: Your body will find a way to do it. And he gets up and faces another day.
Mirin Fader is a staff writer for B/R Mag. She’s written for the Orange County Register, espnW.com, SI.com and Slam. Her work has been honored by the Associated Press Sports Editors, the U.S. Basketball Writers Association, the Football Writers Association of America, the Los Angeles Press Club and the Best American Sports Writing series. Follow her on Twitter: @MirinFader.