For Rocco Rios Novo, it certainly may not have been the debut in an Atlanta uniform he might have envisioned.
After a six-save performance for Atlanta United FC on Tuesday night on the road against Costa Rica’s Alajuelense, however, the American soccer sphere was buzzing over the 18-year-old’s performance that saw Atlanta come away with a crucial 1-0 victory in the first leg of its Scotiabank Concacaf Champions League Round of 16 contest at the Estadio Alejandro Morera Soto.
“I just felt a lot of happiness and it’s a moment I’ll never forget,” Rios Novo said after the game. “I just want to thank my teammates who support me in every moment. I also want to thank my family and my girlfriend who are supporting me from Argentina. I’m very happy.”
Atlanta United 2 goalkeeper Rocco Rios Novo was called into action on Tuesday night in the Scotiabank Concacaf Champions League and came away with a six-save performance in Atlanta United FC's 1-0 win against Alajualense in Costa Rica. | Photo courtesy At
The 18-year-old had joined the USL Championship’s Atlanta United 2 this offseason on a season-long loan from Argentine club Lanus. Conventionally, he would have been in line for his debut on April 24 when the side visits Louisville City FC.
Instead, absences in Atlanta United FC’s goalkeeping corps meant on Monday the Los Angeles native was signed to a short-term agreement to back up former U.S. Men’s National Team goalkeeper Brad Guzan for Atlanta’s season-opener against the 30-time Costa Rican title-winner.
When Guzan was sent off for denial of a goalscoring opportunity three minutes before halftime, the spotlight fell on Rios Novo, who responded impressively after words from encouragement from new Atlanta Head Coach Gabriel Heinze before he entered the game.
“[I told him to] enjoy it,” said Heinze. “He waited for his moment. He’s a kid who hadn’t played in First Division yet, but who we liked. And that whatever happened, it wasn’t going to change my mind on him.”
All six of Rios Novo’s saves came after the halftime break as Alajuelense tried to rally after Atlanta’s Ezequiel Barco had given the visitors the lead from the penalty spot, including a key moment just before the hour-mark that saw Rios Novo stop a stinging free kick by Yurguin Román and then cover the rebound as attackers converged.
“My favorite save tonight, when I blocked a shot but the rebound escaped me a little bit,” said Rios Novo. “I saved the second shot as well. That’s a save that stands out tonight.”
Atlanta will have work to do in next Tuesday night’s second leg at Fifth Third Bank Field Stadium to advance to the tournament quarterfinals. Thanks to a staunch defensive display throughout the side and Rios Novo’s big debut, though, they’ll be playing ahead on home turf.