Fish Story

Late in the first half of the April 8 game against Real Salt Lake, Dallas native Kenny Cooper uses every inch of his 6-foot-3 frame to get his head on a long ball and flick it up the field toward a sprinting Carlos Ruiz. The Guatemalan star known as El Pescadito tracks it down, but a defender is instantly in his face, pushing him off balance and away from the goal. Somehow, as he falls toward the stands, Ruiz senses that Cooper has broken free behind him and nonchalantly taps the ball backward with his heel, straight onto Cooper's foot. The crowd in Frisco is roaring even before Cooper's strike ties the game at one apiece. The display of surgical precision can be considered a Dr. Jekyll moment for Ruiz.

Mr. Hyde appears just minutes later. Arturo Alvarez is closing in on goal from the left wing and Ruiz comes charging into the middle looking for the cross. Instead, Alvarez blasts a shot off the Salt Lake goalkeeper's shoulder. Rather than continuing his run and pursuing the ricochet, Ruiz stops in his tracks--and watches as the ball bounces virtually on the goal line and off the inside of the post. Meanwhile, Roberto Mina comes in from the right chasing the play and nearly forces his way past the defender before the keeper can get a handle on the loose ball. El Pescadito, "the little fish," throws up his hands in disgust and, true to his reputation, turns to the referee to complain that the ball should count as a goal. High above in the press box, one beat writer turns to another and says with a grin, "That's just Carlos doing what he does best."

In the locker room after Dallas' 3-2 victory, Ruiz basks in the attention of the media, all asking about his remarkable assist to Cooper. When a reporter finally mentions the near-miss at the goal line, Ruiz shrugs. "I was a little too far away," he says. Maybe he was waiting to see if the keeper would mishandle the ball. Possibly he was hoping for a long rebound off the post. Yet even the uncertainty of the play mirrors the questions raised by Ruiz's career. Over and over, his formidable talent and determination have brought him opportunities, but too often he misses the goal--even when the only thing standing in the way is himself. Now in the middle of his career at 26, the former youth sensation feels like he has lost focus and is counting on this season to get it back.

Ruiz came to Dallas last year with his signature faux-hawk, a devilish smile and a spectacular Major League Soccer résumé. In 2002, his first year in the MLS, he was the league MVP, leading his team, the Los Angeles Galaxy, to the championship and scoring the winning goal for good measure. In 2003, he was the MVP of the MLS All-Star Game. He again led his team in scoring in 2004 and made the All-Star team. Through all of it he was also the leading scorer and captain of the Guatemalan national team that he nearly carried to this year's World Cup for the first time ever, a campaign that ended only last October.

But there were ugly incidents along the way, as well as a strange inability to make the jump to Europe, soccer's Promised Land. In 1999 he was suspended for six months for deliberately kicking a referee during a national team game against Canada. In 2000 a stint with PAS Giannina, a team on the lowest rungs of Greece's top league, was soured by another disciplinary suspension and a pay dispute. In 2003 he missed a national team trip when his wife filed domestic violence charges against him, charges she dropped two days later. The same year he went to England amid much fanfare to join a struggling Wolverhampton team for a planned three-month stint--only to return to the United States a week later. Reports circulated about Ruiz's penchant for skipping practice in Los Angeles, while his performances on game day occasionally strayed too far toward the theatrical. American commentators began calling El Pescadito the "flopping fish" for his frequent attempts to draw fouls. Word had it that when Ruiz was traded to Dallas last year to accommodate a homesick Landon Donovan's return from Germany, no tears were shed in the Galaxy front office.

Ruiz is not a chemistry killer like newly minted Dallas Cowboy Terrell Owens. True, the little things a player does to make his teammates look better are generally missing from Ruiz's repertoire. He doesn't chase misplaced passes. He seldom holds up his hand in forgiveness or points to himself when a play goes awry. He'll even get in a teammate's face on the field. But the consensus of El Pescadito's colleagues is that even if he doesn't make them look better, he makes them play better. "His passion is contagious for the team," says former teammate and now Dallas assistant coach Oscar Pareja. "I wouldn't change that, because that's what makes him different."