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With a career that has often been jeopardized by injury, Nelson Rivas is trying to relish every chance he gets with the Montreal Impact in MLS.

If Nelson Rivas wasn’t already known to MLS fans around the league before he joined the Montreal Impact in the fall of 2011, he definitely made his mark when the Impact faced the Philadelphia Union at Saputo Stadium in August.

In the 68th minute of the game, the Colombian defender viciously head-butted Union forward Antoine Hoppenot and was subsequently ejected from the match and suspended for three matches.

Rivas has always been known for his physical play. When he moved to River Plate in Argentina the fans called him “Tyson,” mainly because he’s black and having players of colour hadn’t been very common with the club, but also because of his physical prowess, especially with respect to the ferocity of his tackles and aerial challenges.

Off the field, however, reveals a whole different persona: he’s nice and tranquil and never holds himself back from a smile or two. When signing autographs following training sessions, he’ll often have a chat with fans as if they were his friends.

Former Italian international defender Marco Materazzi, who was a former teammate of Rivas from his days at Inter Milan and was the victim of the famous head butt from Zinedine Zidane in the 2006 World Cup final, always said that stepping onto the soccer field was like entering into another reality, one where he would invariably transform into a more wild self.  

Rivas explained that he himself undergoes this same sort of transformation.

“This is my nature and the way that I was brought up. When you step onto the field your whole being and spirit has to come out,” Rivas told “This [game] is my passion and every game and practice I want to give my utmost, when I step onto the field I do so with pride for the jersey that I’m wearing. I don’t care if I’m playing my brother out there. I go on the field to do my job.” 

What also plays into Rivas’ willingness to really assert himself on the field is the fact that his career has been marred by almost incessant injury. Since the beginning of 2007, he’s played a little less than 50 games with River Plate, Inter Milan, Livorno and Dnipro.

At 29 years old and coming towards the final years of his career, the Colombian wants to get in as many minutes as he can and try to make each one count too.   

Despite the fact that the MLS skill level "is much lower than in Europe,” Rivas was very enthusiastic about the prospect off coming across the pond and playing for the Impact. After unfortunate years in Europe, it was a chance of finding some stability and regular playing time.

“When I spoke with the club directors, with Nick [De Santis}, with the President [Joey Saputo], I saw their enthusiasm and knowing that I hadn’t been playing much and just come off an injury, I told myself that this was a great opportunity,” Rivas explained.

“The idea is always to be happy. My family is doing very well here, I’m happy, I’m playing and I know that MLS is a step down, but I’m happy to be here in Montreal and they [the club] gave me this possibility to come here and train and they’ve given me confidence.”

His transition to MLS has taken a bit of time as he’s also had his injuries this season as well, but when he’s been healthy he’s definitely been one of the Impact’s best performers.

Impact head coach Jesse Marsch told that he’s content with his progress so far.

“Nelson’s the first guy we signed,” said Marsch. "We identified him early as a real talent and a guy that we think would translate into MLS really well.

“There’s been different challenges with him. There’s a language barrier and him and I getting to know each other has taken time. His injury issues in the past and now trying to identify exactly what goes on with his body, help him understand that and now work with our medical team to get him into the best physical state that we can.


“But the thing that has always been there is his desire to compete, his desire to be a big part of this and to being a good player here, its helped his transition, even though he hasn’t gotten all the minutes he would have liked this year.” 

Now that Rivas is healthy and playing, he’s just trying to cherish every moment he gets to be on the field. He says he doesn’t know what the future has in store, but that he's just trying to take things day by day.

For now, he’s focused on helping the Impact battle for the playoffs.

“We’re aiming for the playoffs,” Rivas concluded.  “There’s still five games left and we’ll fight to the end”.

And fight he will.

Nick Sabetti covers the Montreal Impact for Canada.