Nashville MLS has its first player (officially), and Nashville SC as a USL side has its first new signing for the 2019 season. Who is Daniel Rios?
Let’s begin with the physical: he stands 6-1, 185 pounds – not necessarily an imposing specimen, but certainly plenty big to be a striker of either the goal-scoring or target variety. His ability to do either of those things is a big deal for NSC Technical Director Mike Jacobs.
“I think he embodies what we look for in a player: from the standpoint of wanting someone who is creative, somebody who promotes a daring attacking style of play, and somebody who I think fits into the DNA of our club,” Jacobs said. “He fits the profile that you look for in a striker, specifically a player in that 9 role. Not only is he a poacher and a sniper around the box, but he’s a very clinical finisher: he’s somebody who doesn’t need a lot of chances to score… His hold-up play is very strong, as somebody who can link up with as a target, makes him somebody who can not only create chances for himself, but for his teammates as well.”
At just 23 years old (turning 24 before the beginning of next season), he’s also a relatively young player. In the global picture, that’s a guy who’s settling into a career, but in MLS specifically, that’s essentially the age of what you’d expect from most rookies.
“When you think of the fact that he’s really the age of someone who’s a senior in college or their first year out, the equivalent of an MLS SuperDraft selection, to see him be able to score 20 goals against top competition in USL at such a young age speaks volumes about not only where he is now, but where he’s going as a player.”
After much searching for stats (with very little luck), the official Liga Ascenso (second division in Mexico) website turned out to have what I needed! Imagine that! The first place I should have looked! Here’s his résumé south of the border – all of this while loaned out from Chivas de Guadalajara:
- Spring 2016 – Coras FC: 624 minutes in nine games (seven starts), 69 minutes per appearance. Four goals. Coras finished 11th of 16 teams on 19 points in 15 games, 20 goals for and 19 goals against.
- Fall 2016 – Chivas II (Segunda división – Mexican third division): 722 minutes in 12 games (eight starts), 60 minutes per appearance. Three goals and three yellow cards. Chivas II finished with 32 points in 15 games, 26 goals for and 16 goals against.
- Spring 2017 – Coras FC: 1216 minutes in 16 games played (14 starts), 76 minutes per appearance. Five goals. Coras finished ninth of 18 teams on 26 points in 17 games, 24 goals for and 20 goals against.
- Fall 2017 – Zacatepec: 773 minutes in 13 games (nine starts), 59 minutes per appearance. Four goals. Zacatepec finished fourth of 16 teams on 24 points in 15 games, 19 goals for and 12 goals against.
Mexican leagues play two seasons per year, with the Fall (“Apertura,” or “opening”) and Spring (“Clausura” or “closing”) combined for promotion/relegation purposes – before FMF suspended pro/rel, at least – but champions of each considered a champion in their own right.
He also had a number of Cup appearances (in Copa MX, the Mexican version of US Open Cup, as well as the playoffs for the Reserve teams of Liga MX sides). Over the course of four separate seasons, he had four goals in six games in Copa MX’s early rounds, no goals in one appearance in Copa MX proper, and no goals in four appearances in that reserve tournament. Although he never played for the Chivas first team, having come up through that academy certainly can provide some connections for the team to work when looking for players in the future.
Moving to the United States, however, saw a major uptick in Rios’s production with a starring role for North Carolina FC: He earned first-team All-USL honors while leading NCFC in scoring.
Rios notched 20 goals on 61 shots (33% conversion rate for all my “NSC couldn’t finish last year”-heads), 13 with the right foot, six from the left, and one headed goal. Three of his goals came from outside the box, including two free-kick strikes. He also recorded four assists (on 34(!) key passes, so he probably should have had better assist numbers if his team had stepped up around him), giving some serious credence to Jacobs’s “he can be a hold-up striker” statement.
North Carolina was a high-scoring team last year, with 60 total goals (only Cincinnati, Louisville, NYRBII, Orange County, and Phoenix scored more), and Ríos scored 20 of those himself, and assisted on four more: he was the straw that stirred the drink, no doubt. He finished tied for second in scoring across USL despite sitting three games entirely, not making the playoffs (the player he’s tied with, Thomas Enevoldsen, played in 37 games), and playing about 72 minutes per appearance (he came on as a sub five times, and was subbed off himself 12). The team missed out on the playoffs despite their potent offense because the defense was worse than everyone but the bottom three in the Eastern Conference.
Conveniently, his agent has a highlight video available, set to the dulcet tones of The Killers:
As you can see, there’s great ball-striking ability and a fair amount of technical wizardry, but a lot of what he is able to do is a matter of vision, timing, and positioning. He knows how to be in the right place at the right time (when to make the right run), and of course, can finish. For his part, Ríos names his MLS role models as Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Lucho Acosta (citing their finishing and technical ability, respectively), which, yeah be a combo of those two guys, pls.
He’s mostly right-footed, but can finish with the left, too. He was much more header-oriented in Mexico, which is probably more a stylistic choice of NCFC (they scored 10 headed goals last year total, with four from midfielder Austin Da Luz, and had only three total goals from set pieces) than any diminishing in his skillset. A little bit of tight-area technical ability allows him to find the space to get a shot off in traffic, and he finds room to pick out passes (preferably so he can make a run and get it right back) near the top of the 18.
Chivas was set to make a decision on his return (Sp.), and this signing seems to indicate that the past three days saw that made: get a transfer fee out of him now, rather than try to work him into the first team or loan him out again.
For the USL side, he’s likely to fill the role we had hoped Brandon Allen would as the finisher, with a bit more technical ability (and presumably a better conversion rate). NSC’s tactical approach will determine how much more that role entails: will he be a lone striker dropping the ball off to midfielders or wingers in hold-up play, and finishing their service? Will he be next to a partner striker (whether Ropapa Mensah in a creative role or Tucker Hume in a hold-up one)? The breadth of his skillset allows for quite a bit of creativity and diversity in scheme. I even think he has some ability to function as a No. 10, though Jacobs was pretty clear that out-and-out striker is his primary role.
As he continues to develop, a little more technical ability added to the package – he’s already physically impressive – will make for a player who can more than hold his own at the MLS level.
Ríos’s signing is also a big one for an organization that has struggled to attract a Spanish-speaking audience in the Nashville market (and that’s a large audience untapped anywhere in the United States for a professional soccer team). Tapping into that with not only a talented Mexican player, but one who was part of the FMF’s youth setup as a youngster, opens a whole lot of doors for both the USL and MLS sides of the operation.
I’ve confirmed with the franchise that he was purchased outright from Chivas, and his contract does not include any allocation money, nor is he in the Designated Player category (putting his salary somewhere between the MLS minimum of $54,500 and the maximum below requiring allocation money of $504, 375). He will be loaned from Nashville MLS, which holds his contract, to Nashville SC, where he will play in 2019. The length of his contract beyond that (and the specific financial terms) will not be disclosed. Given that the ownership of the two teams is effectively the same, the practical effect from the fan perspective is that he’s a guy who plays for Nashville SC and will transition to MLS when the time comes in 2020.