Reformed Ruiz delivers for FC Dallas
Goal scorers generally find their happy place in just one way: They need their scoring fix. The juice is always in finding the net, and little else feeds the need.
So it was in other times for Carlos Ruiz, FC Dallas' mercurial, combative and sometimes troubled striker.
The former league scoring champ and former league MVP ensured everybody that he was ready to be a more dedicated soldier. He pledged a greater allegiance to FC Dallas and promised a heightened loyalty to teammates, the better to fully earn his new four-year deal, worth more than $400,000 annually.
Ruiz also set a target of 20 goals for the entire campaign (the 32-game regular season plus the playoffs). While it seems unlikely that Ruiz can reach that sum -- he has 13 going into the home-and-away conference semifinals against Colorado -- he doesn't seem like a fellow going all fidgety and jonesing for his next goal-scoring fix.
"First of all, I think about my team," he said. "Win the championship. Win the MLS Cup. And then I think about myself. And if my team doesn't win the championship, then I can respond to any questions about myself. But right now, I'm thinking about the championship and not about Carlos Ruiz."
Of course, with any high-profile athlete, it's easy to wonder if those are just words. In Ruiz's case, he may indeed be delighted to be part of the train, and not the mighty engine. He is a happier person in 2006, something hardly lost on his teammates and coaches.
For one thing, Ruiz is around more often. His debut campaign in Dallas in 2005 was pockmarked by unexcused absences and habitual tardiness. And when he did manage to locate Pizza Hut Park on time, Ruiz was often tired, taxed heavily by travel for World Cup qualifiers and drowning in relentless waves of pressure.
The squeeze was coming from two sides. First, Ruiz toted the weight of an entire country's dreams. Tiny Guatemala was on the verge of qualifying for a World Cup, which would be truly epochal stuff for the Central American nation of about 15 million. And it was squarely on the Little Fish to plant his country's flag at Germany 2006.
Plus, Ruiz was going through a messy divorce. His two young daughters had moved back to Guatemala and were having trouble coping with their father's absence. So every trip home brought not only the World Cup burden but also the emotional undertow of two loving daughters who were crushed each time their daddy left again.
It all added up to a frustrating situation for manager Colin Clarke and the FC Dallas players. They empathized with the situation and they always admired how Ruiz played hard when he was present. But what did it matter if they couldn't count on him to be around? Time and again Ruiz was late returning from national team duty or other appearances. Once, he failed to return at all, going completely AWOL for a match against San Jose.
That's why teammates are more than happy with Ruiz's team-leading, 13-goal output. Defender Bobby Rhine mentioned that Ruiz's energy and emotion seem especially high for the bigger games, exactly what you'd expect from a guy who, although only 27, just completed his fifth MLS season.
"Yeah, it's more fun this year," Ruiz admitted. "Last year, there were too many games. Too many trips. A lot of pressure from my country."
Ruiz's fitness is far superior to this time last year, when he missed the final seven games prior to a first-round crash landing against Colorado. Then, like now, FC Dallas won the Western Conference and met the Rapids in the first round.
Ruiz scored twice in the back end of the home-and-away series, but he also missed a penalty kick late in the match.
Whatever happens going forward, Ruiz already has justified Clarke's most critical offseason choice. FC Dallas jumped the salary cap by signing Ruiz to the new deal in February. Clarke had few other options but to choose between keeping Ruiz or Eddie Johnson. Both were at the MLS max for cap purposes. Plus, Clarke had a big belief in young Kenny Cooper, who had yet to play an MLS minute but was already making one of the club's higher-profile strikers expendable in the manager's mind.
A lot of buzz continued around Johnson despite some injury trouble near the end of 2005. He was young and American, possibly headed to a splashy appearance for coach Bruce Arena's next big World Cup thing. Ruiz, on the other hand, was coming off that wobbly season.
But for Clarke this was a serious no-brainer. He huddled with trusted assistant Steve Morrow and the FC Dallas suits and wasted no time in shipping Johnson to Kansas City. Even back then, Clarke maintained that this was a sitter, a remarkably easy choice.
Now, nine months later, Johnson surely must be the worst player in MLS for the money. With just two goals this year (a troubled campaign shortened when manager Brian Bliss suspended the striker for undisclosed reasons prior to the season finale), Johnson essentially cost the Wizards $400,000 per goal. That has to be the worst deal in MLS since Lothar Matthäus picked the league's pockets during his jog through Giants Stadium.
Ruiz, meanwhile, had a bit of an up-and-down campaign himself, although he never scraped bottom the way Johnson did. The Little Fish failed to connect in Dallas' first five matches, going 0-for-April. Not that it really mattered. Clarke's men were winning, and Ruiz was contributing.
FC Dallas launched the season with three wins and two ties through an unbeaten month. Ruiz earned his money with two assists and by drawing fouls in dangerous spots. Plus, all the defensive attention heaped on Ruiz was helping Cooper make his introduction. Cooper, playing his first MLS matches after two-plus seasons in the Manchester United reserves, struck three times that first month.
The more mature Ruiz was beating back the immature, impulsive version sometimes seen before. He wasn't pouting about not scoring. He showed no signs of the frustrated striker mired in a goalless funk. Mostly, he looked like a happy dude on a winning team.
The goals started coming in May, five to be exact. By mid-June, El Pescadito had matched a league mark by scoring in seven consecutive matches. With half a season remaining, he already had equaled a personal best in assists with five.
July brought the first of a series of minor injuries. The steady progression of goals ceased and another dry spell was at hand. Ruiz slogged through 11 MLS games -- a career long -- without striking.
Frustration? Only that his team was steering through a bad patch. Mostly, Ruiz continued to be a confident figure and a jolly, motivated locker-room presence. By September, he was scoring again, as he found the net in four of Dallas' final five matches. In fact, the only contest in the span without a Ruiz tally came when Los Angeles clobbered the Texas outfit 5-2 in a meaningless season finale.
"I feel more in shape this year," Ruiz said after practice on a sunny day this week, in English that has improved measurably during his two-year stint with the club. "And I think the team is playing better and better. I don't care about the game against the Galaxy because that game for us meant nothing. This team, under pressure, plays good."
Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.