When it comes to Major League Soccer villainy, Carlos Ruiz is as diabolical as they get. This doesn’t simply stem from his reputation for dirty tricks and embellishment, mind you. He’s not the first player to emerge from Latin America’s soccer culture with such tendencies.
The reason Ruiz gets under opponents’ skin is that after all of the tumbles, tugs and nudges, they keep having to watch him celebrate goals.
In acquiring the 33-year-old striker, D.C. United checked “proven scorer” off their offseason shopping list, adding a figure whose resume includes league MVP honors, prolific success in the regular season and playoffs, and more national team goals than anyone in Guatemalan history.
The fan base’s reaction? Reasonably cynical. But coach Ben Olsen’s conscience is clear.
“I would always want a guy like that on my team,” Olsen said, before dryly adding, “I didn’t even know he had such a rep, but apparently he’s a ‘controversial figure.’ It doesn’t take much to be controversial, though. I don’t know — I love the guy.”
If nothing else, United don’t have to worry about seeing “El Pescadito” — “The Little Fish” — lining up for opponents this MLS campaign. He’s all theirs.
“It’s the guy you want to have on your team,” said All-Star midfielder Chris Pontius. “It’s the guy you don’t want to play against.”
United, who open the 2013 season with a conference final rematch at the Houston Dynamo on Saturday, began pursuing Ruiz after he scored for Guatemala in a 3-1 loss to the United States in October. Although he has been inactive on the club level for months since moving on from second-tier Mexican side Veracruz, he scored five goals in World Cup qualifying this past fall.
After spending the winter training by himself at his home in Dallas, Ruiz finally joined United last week when the club selected him in the league allocation process.
“When the opportunity came, I was speaking with a couple clubs in Major League Soccer,” Ruiz said. “But I really wanted to come with a team who really wants to fight for a championship, like D.C.”
With 88 regular-season goals in eight MLS seasons with the Los Angeles Galaxy, FC Dallas, Toronto FC and the Philadelphia Union, Ruiz ranks fourth among active scorers.
And one of the players in front of him is new teammate Dwayne De Rosario (100 goals), giving United’s young locker room two of the most accomplished players MLS has seen.
“The first thing he said to me was, ‘Anything you want me to do … to help the younger guys and the team, I’m there for you,’” said De Rosario, the 2011 league MVP. “So for him to say that to me, it means a lot. I know he’s come here to do business.”
Added Ruiz: “There are a lot of young players here, so I can teach what I’ve learned in my long career. And I think I can bring that experience to the field, too.”
But a starting job for Ruiz is far from certain. Incumbent striker Lionard Pajoy impressed Olsen with his work rate last year before enjoying a fruitful preseason, and pricey Brazilian newcomer Rafael, 20, isn’t being paid to sit on the bench.
“It’s going to be tough, but it’s going to be good for the team,” Ruiz said. “We can fight every practice for the position and try to see who’s going to play in the first 11.”
Olsen noted fitness still is a concern for Ruiz considering how late he arrived in preseason. While Ruiz may only be able to go 10 or 15 minutes Saturday, Olsen said this move was made with the full nine-month marathon in mind, pointing out Ruiz is “a guy who does some of his best work down the stretch when you need him.”
No arguing that. In 17 playoff games, Ruiz has an astonishing 16 goals, including the MLS Cup winner for Los Angeles to cap his MVP season in 2002 — back when Olsen was a 25-year-old midfielder for United with another seven seasons in front of him.
“Soccer in this country is a very small world,” Olsen said. “I know what type of guy he is. And I know when he steps on the field, he plays hard, he plays with passion, and he wants to win for whoever’s uniform he’s wearing. That’s enough for me.”