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MLS awaits, but Nashville SC’s Daniel Ríos focused on excelling in USL

Dave Sarachan called Daniel Rios a ‘real striker.’ Gary Smith called him ‘a difference maker.’ Nashville SC’s first MLS signing is chasing the USL’s golden boot.

Nashville SC's Daniel Rios prepares to take the first kick against North Carolina FC on June 29, 2019 at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, N.C. (Mitchell Northam / Pro Soccer USA)

CARY, N.C. – It was a bittersweet moment for Daniel Ríos as he walked off the pitch at WakeMed Soccer Park on June 29. His current club, Nashville SC, was shutout and defeated by his old team, North Carolina FC. And while he was wearing an opposing kit, that didn’t stop NCFC supporters from cheering him on.

After the match was over, Ríos walked over to the supporters’ section of the stadium and spent time signing autographs and taking pictures. He was the last Nashville SC player to exit the showers and the locker room after the match, but fans and friends still waited for him outside in the parking lot.

“It was a happy moment,” Rios told Pro Soccer USA after the match. “I was happy to be here and playing against my old teammates. I enjoyed my time here. It feels like home. [NCFC] treated me very well here last year. It felt good to be back. Everyone is kind.”

A year ago with North Carolina FC is where Ríos, 24, had the first breakout campaign of his professional soccer career. In 32 appearances with the club, Ríos netted 20 goals and assisted on three others, putting him in second place in the chase for the league’s golden boot last season. His stellar play caught the attention of Nashville SC, which is building up to the transition from the USL Championship to Major League Soccer in 2020.

Ríos was playing with North Carolina FC last season on loan from Liga MX side Chivas Guadalajara, but Nashville SC thought so highly of him that it wasn’t interested in another loan deal. The club bought Ríos outright from Chivas, making him its first MLS signing last November.

“When you work, good things come to you,” Ríos said. “I’ve been working a lot, I’m still working, just doing my job. So, when you’re prepared and you work for it, you receive good things, like [the MLS contract].”

While MLS is on the horizon for Ríos and Nashville SC, he and the club are focused on this season. They want to go out on top, and they’re on track to do that. After beating in-state rival Memphis 901 FC earlier this week, Nashville is fifth in the Eastern Conference table with a 9-5-5 record and a goal differential of plus-14. As of Wednesday, FiveThirthyEight gave Nashville the fourth best odds to win the USL crown.

Meanwhile, Ríos is once again in the thick of a golden boot race. He and Phoenix Rising FC’s Solomon Asante are tied for the league lead in goals scored, each having netted 12.

“The thing about this year is, I can use it for preparation for next year, the next level,” Ríos said. “But of course, you’re still proving yourself. It’s not like I will be lazy this year and then be good next year. No, I have to be good wherever I am — this year, USL, and next year, MLS.”

While Ríos didn’t find the back of the net against North Carolina FC, he still showed that he was a threat. He fired off five shots, putting two of them on target, in addition to creating three chances, winning two fouls and notching an 86 percent accuracy on 29 passes.

It was the first time that Dave Sarachan — NCFC’s first-year head coach — had seen Ríos up close. The former United States men’s national team skipper came away dazzled by Ríos’ abilities.

“I was impressed with Daniel,” Sarachan said. “I had heard a lot about him. Other than some film, I hadn’t seen him live. The first chance he gets, where he takes the ball down to the box and releases it quickly, that’s a real striker. He’s a real striker. He didn’t get on the scoresheet thankfully [against NCFC] and I think our guys did a good job [defending him], but you can never take a guy off of him.”

Louisville City FC learned that lesson the hard way on July 6, leaving Ríos unmarked for just a moment. Following a throw-in in the 11th minute, Cameron Lancaster softly settled the ball for Ríos near the outside left corner of the penalty box. Rios raced towards the ball, took a subtle touch, then blasted a right-footed shot past two defenders that sailed by Louisville’s diving goalkeeper before kissing the post and landing in the back of the net.

Ríos reveled in the moment by mimicking U.S. women’s national team star Alex Morgan’s tea-sipping celebration. The score landed on SportsCenter’s Top 10, and Nashville SC coach Gary Smith called it a “world-class strike.”

The goal was another example of the chemistry between Ríos and Lancaster. The latter, playing for Louisville last season, bested Ríos in the golden boot race and was Nashville’s second MLS signing. Together, they have formed a pairing up top that is extremely difficult for USL defenses to contain. The same will likely be true next season, as the duo races around MLS back lines.

“We’re building up the way we play together. We create a lot of chances for each other,” Ríos said. “The focus of the team is playing for us. We have two great strikers and the team tries to create opportunities for us.”

He added after the Louisville game: “We understand each other very well and we know how to play together. When you have a good player behind you, you may try to play the best you could with him. … It’s always me assisting him or him assisting me. It’s good chemistry right now.”

Ríos was born in Mexico City and came up in Chivas’ academy. In 2015, just two days after his 20th birthday, he made his debut for club’s senior team. He has also played in 48 games for Mexico’s youth national teams at the under-18, U-20 and U-21 levels. In a game against the MLS Homegrown squad in 2016, Ríos started for the Mexican U-20 side.

However, Ríos never quite caught on with Chivas for regular playing time. He went on loans to Coras and Zacatepec, both clubs in the lower tiers of Mexican football. He scored four goals in 16 appearances with Zapatepec, and eight goals in 14 games with Coras. It was obvious the talent was there, but it wasn’t quite unleashed until Ríos came to USL.

While Ríos honed his offensive talents at North Carolina — and ended the 2018 season on the USL’s best XI list — he says he’s expanded his game at Nashville and that Smith has made him into a more multi-dimensional player.

“He’s a new kind of coach that I haven’t had before,” Ríos said of Smith. “He really has a defensive mindset, which is good for me and helps improve my game, having both skills on both sides.”

Nashville SC’s Daniel Rios dribbles up the pitch at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, N.C. on June 29, 2019. (Mitchell Northam / Pro Soccer USA)

Smith, 50, has had a lengthy career in pro soccer as a player and now as a coach. From playing across several clubs in England to coaching the Colorado Rapids to an MLS Cup, he’s seen his fair share of talented strikers.

But for him, Ríos sticks out.

“He’s been wonderful, not just as a team member and the goals that he scores, but his general play,” Smith said. “He’s very polished, good first touch, brings others into the game and he’s an intelligent lad. I think the thing that struck everyone in the club is his demeanor. He’s a very humble boy, hardworking and a real team player. He’s been a great addition to the group.

“[Ríos is] that difference maker in front of goal. His hold up play, his determination to try and maintain the ball for the group, his energy to help the group when we don’t have the ball, just his general attitude daily has been magnificent. And on top of that, you’ve got exceptional finishing.”

On the defensive front, Ríos is winning 86 percent of his tackles this season, and he’s tallied four interceptions, two blocks and five clearances. He’s been 78 percent accurate on 461 passes and has one assist to his name this season too.

“He knows where to be. He’s humble. He’s hungry. He has that and I love it,” teammate Kosuke Kimura said of Ríos. “It’s not just him scoring goals. As a teammate, good personality. Sometimes forwards forget and don’t defend much, but this guy, he works so hard defensively.”

When asked about the city of Nashville, Ríos cited the obvious as to what he loves about it: the music, the food, the people.

Eventually, he’ll be part of the Nashville team that takes the pitch at Nissan Stadium in 2020 as an MLS squad for the first time. But right now, in 2019, he’s focused on one thing.

“We are chasing the USL championship, of course,” Ríos said. “That’s our goal.”

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