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."

Ruiz's personal history alone is inspirational: His father died when he was 2, leaving his mother to raise four kids alone in a tough Guatemala City neighborhood. He was plucked from obscurity at age 12 by the storied local club CSD Municipal, and his fiery attitude propelled him upward. Now he is arguably the best player ever produced by Guatemala, a soccer-mad country with a modest pool of talent. The weight of his country's expectations adds fuel to Ruiz's fire. "He's hard on himself, probably harder than anybody else," says Greg Vanney, an FCD defender and veteran of France's top league. "He has high expectations for himself, and that's basically all you can ask for."

El Pescadito's troubles followed him to Dallas. On top of his MLS duties were piled the intense demands of World Cup qualifying, a disintegrating marriage and even a paternity suit filed in Los Angeles. Injuries and absenteeism limited Ruiz's contributions. "It was a lot of pressure, and I didn't handle it well," Ruiz says. His efforts were still enough to earn him an All-Star spot once again, but on the day of the July 30 match in Columbus, Ohio, Ruiz was nowhere to be found, with conflicting reports on his status. It later turned out that Ruiz had been excused after pleading extreme fatigue, but skeptics pointed to a Guatemalan newspaper photo from the day before showing a grinning Ruiz surrounded by busty brunettes at a Hooters opening in Guatemala City.

The fact remained, though, that when he is on, Ruiz can dominate any game. He returned from injury for the playoffs and scored two goals in the conference semifinal that FCD eventually lost on penalty kicks. Yet Ruiz was still a second-class striker on his team come payday. The marketing-friendly Florida native Eddie Johnson saw even less action in 2005 than Ruiz because of a remarkably stubborn toe injury, but early that year he signed a three-year contract for a reported $875,000 a year--more than 12 times what Ruiz was making.

In February, FC Dallas at last corrected the obvious injustice. Though European clubs had stopped knocking on Ruiz's door, the MLS came through with a four-year deal that reportedly pays him close to $500,000 a year if he earns all the incentives. Head coach Colin Clarke proclaimed to anyone who would listen that signing Ruiz was priority No. 1, and proved it by sending Johnson to Kansas City. Clarke insists that Ruiz's personal conduct never came up in the negotiations, but Ruiz recognizes the challenge the deal represents--and says he's up to it. "I want to change," he says simply.

Ruiz has finally found a team that wants him as indisputably as the Municipal of his youth, and he's doing his best to return the sentiment. But when, in an unguarded moment just after the team's preseason charity dinner, he is asked how he feels about his contract, the Little Fish doesn't seem all that happy to be caught. He gazes at the ground in silence for a beat, then sighs, "It's four more years, man."

The old Carlos Ruiz probably would have let that comment stand, or might have added a list of places he'd rather be. This year, however, the new Carlos Ruiz has made his debut as the responsible team player. He looks up after he says the words, aware of how they may have sounded, and quickly adds, "But the team made the effort to get me, and that means a lot." It means that Ruiz is at last ready to confront his image problem. If he succeeds, as he has in so many things, El Pescadito could start bringing in fans through the gates of gleaming new Pizza Hut Park, trophies to the still-unfinished cases and offers from Europe, the biggest pond of them all.

"Kick it here, son!"

Carlos Ruiz doesn't remember those words, spoken to him in 1981 when he was 2 years old. His father wouldn't live much longer, but he was around his only son long enough to make a prediction--even though it started as an excuse.

Ruiz kicked the ball and, as is the way of balls kicked indoors, it collided with the cabinet where his mother stored all the china, porcelain knick-knacks and souvenirs.

"Boom! It hit the cabinet and everything fell and broke," remembers Ruiz's mother, Maria Gutierrez. "I was so mad at him." But when Gutierrez began to lecture Ruiz about the proper place for kicking soccer balls, his father cut her off. "Leave him alone. He's going to be the best player on the Guatemalan national team one day."

Gutierrez was so surprised she burst out laughing and told her husband he was out of his mind--but he persisted. "You watch," he said. It was a casual boast that could have been uttered in a million households in Guatemala, but in only one would it become prophecy.

The family lived in Zona 21 in Guatemala City, in a neighborhood called Bellos Horizontes, or "Beautiful Horizons." The hilly terrain on the southern outskirts of the city can afford some sweeping views, but the vast sprawl of rusting corrugated metal roofs and narrow streets is more known for limited prospects. "In my neighborhood, if you looked at the future, you would either go to jail, get killed, or do whatever you could to get out," Ruiz remembers.

As Ruiz was growing up, the civil war that had plagued Guatemala since the 1960s was slowly winding down, but the political strife took a back seat to the gangs that were beginning to make their presence felt all over the city. For many of Ruiz's friends, gangs seemed like the best hope of gaining respect and earning income. "Of all the friends I had in the neighborhood, I was the one that played soccer the least," Ruiz says. "They were all incredible soccer players. But for some, their families were so poor that it made them join gangs as a way to make easy money."

Through sheer hard work, Gutierrez kept Carlos and his two older sisters, later joined by a younger sister, from a similar fate. For two years the children lived with their grandmother while she worked in Chicago, and later she found a job at the Colgate-Palmolive factory in Guatemala as a machine operator, making soap and toothpaste, the same job she continues in today. "I've been with the company for 18 years," she says proudly. "It's a very prestigious company here in Guatemala." After her shift at the factory, she would sell food and clothing on the streets, putting in 18 hours or more every day but Sunday, when she would come home at 3 in the afternoon. When Carlos' oldest sister got pregnant at age 14, the household grew to six, and Gutierrez was forced to stretch the family budget even more.

All her efforts were directed toward allowing her children the chance to study and go to college--and certainly not so her only son could waste his time playing soccer. While his older sisters studied, Ruiz watched the two younger girls all morning and then took his turn going to school in the afternoon. "I'm a pretty strict mom," she says. "I'm like a tigress defending my cubs. Because I didn't have a man around I had to take over the role." Ruiz still winces when he remembers the iron discipline in his house. "I always listened to my mom, because if I didn't--whack!"

Ruiz snuck in pick-up games at school and in the street, but it was Don Pedro, an upstairs neighbor, who finally gave him a spot on a real team when he was 7. He proposed the idea to Gutierrez and she reluctantly agreed to let Ruiz play--but only on Sundays, and only if he'd finished all his schoolwork.

An ecstatic Ruiz suited up for the first time but found that organized soccer wasn't quite what he'd expected. "I didn't know what position I played, and everybody was so good, so I ended up starting out as the goalie," he says. "The team was so good that I wouldn't touch the ball the whole game." The scores would often end up 10 or even 15 to nothing, while Ruiz stood alone at the other end, scuffing his feet in the dirt. Eventually Ruiz worked up the courage to ask Don Pedro if maybe when the team was far enough ahead, he could play on the field for a bit. Don Pedro agreed to indulge his faithful goalie.

"The first ball that I touched, I scored a goal," Ruiz says. "I had never experienced any happiness like it. We won, like, 12 to nothing, but I had never felt anything like scoring a goal." Over the next few years, and despite his mother's best intentions, Ruiz began to develop a reputation as a soccer marksman. "Everybody knows each other in that neighborhood, but even more so if you play soccer," he says. "And if you're good, everybody in the area knows who you are." His friends in the gangs stopped pestering him to join and started to come watch him play. "Those were good times," he says. "I felt really secure."

The neighborhood team didn't have a coach, and of course Ruiz couldn't go to practices. "I think that soccer is something that you carry inside," he says. His natural ability could take him only so far, however. "There are people that have the gift, but unfortunately the person never comes into their life that could help them to understand what the sport is all about. Luckily, I met somebody like that when I was 11 years old."

That person was Luis Grill Prieto, an Argentine coach with vast experience at all levels of Latin American soccer. Grill had recently been hired to run the youth organization of CSD Municipal (the CSD is the Spanish acronym for "Social and Sports Club"), the most important team in the country, along with its rival, CSD Comunicaciones. "If there are 12 million people in Guatemala, maybe eight million are for Municipal and four million are for Comunicaciones," Ruiz says. Supporters of Municipal are known as rojos for the team's signature red color, and Ruiz had always been a rojo.

As with virtually every major soccer-playing country except the United States, teams in Guatemala are vertically integrated in every sense. Not only are teams promoted or demoted to the next level based on their performance, but most have youth affiliates at every age level. In Latin America, teams with enough income often run youth academies, essentially boarding schools geared for developing elite young players whose contract rights they control.

Grill began his task by taking out a newspaper ad announcing a tryout for Municipal's youth teams, open to boys between ages 12 and 20. For the young rojos in Bellos Horizontes, it was like finding a golden ticket in their chocolate bar. When Ruiz heard the news, he knew he had to be there--but he also knew his mother would never agree. Yet the rickety construction of Ruiz's apartment building had one advantage: By lifting the ceiling panels and climbing out under the roof, Ruiz could leave the house unseen, and a friend could come in and take over his babysitting duties the morning of the event.

Ruiz successfully executed his plan, and with two friends and one pair of soccer shoes among the three of them, he made his way to the field in the city center. "I remember the stadium was full of children, thousands of them," Ruiz says. "I was thinking, 'Man, some of these kids play soccer for real. They're going to be really good.'" As the youngest, Ruiz's turn with the shoes came first, and he began a 15-minute scrimmage under Grill's watchful gaze. Ruiz made the cut and was invited to keep training with the youth team.

For three months Ruiz kept his triumph secret from his mother, sneaking out through the ceiling every Tuesday and Thursday until a neighbor alerted her to the strange goings-on. "When she found out, man did she hit me!" Ruiz says. He was grounded as punishment, and it appeared his career with Municipal was over--until several days later, when a knock came at the door. To Ruiz's amazement, Grill himself had come looking for him, but Ruiz wasn't about to risk his mother's wrath again. He told Grill to come back on Sunday afternoon when Gutierrez would be home.

When the Municipal coach began to lay out his case to Ruiz's mother the next Sunday, Ruiz could hardly believe his ears. "[Grill] said, 'I've been in Argentina, I've been in Chile, I've been in Mexico, and I've never seen a player of his age that can play like he can,'" Ruiz says. Though he sat meekly while his mother and his coach argued back and forth, Ruiz was doing backflips inside. Finally Grill offered to place Ruiz in the team's youth academy, where he would get free schooling, room and board. Gutierrez didn't like the idea of her only son leaving home, but the offer was just too good, and she tearfully agreed. "She said, 'OK, you can go, but you'd better be the best player in Guatemala.'"

From that moment, Grill became the closest thing Ruiz had ever had to a father. "Carlos was a special case from the beginning," Grill says. "He never knew his father, so we began talking a lot." The coach had two children of his own, but Ruiz quickly became a third. Grill knew he had a prodigy on his hands. Now 84, Grill still marvels at the twist of fate that brought them together. "I have a pretty long résumé, 55 years as a coach, and I understand that I can make mistakes like anybody," Grill says. "But out of all those kids, I picked him because I knew he would be the one."

Ruiz made his debut with the adult Municipal squad at the unheard-of age of 16. It was a dizzying rise. Suddenly he was making $2,000 a month in a country where people live on $200--and he hadn't yet learned to drive. "You always dream of playing soccer first of all," Ruiz says. "Then you dream of playing for one of the big teams in Guatemala. Then you dream of playing for the national team. And for me it all happened so fast." When Ruiz went to the MLS, an entire country shifted its sporting attention northward. "Whenever Los Angeles had an important game, it was like the national team was playing," says his mother. "And when Los Angeles won the championship, it was like it was Christmas."

Outside Gutierrez's new house in a much nicer section of the city, the children still play soccer in the streets, but now she can hear them yell out to each other, "Look, look, I'm Carlos Ruiz! I'm El Pescadito!" Her walls, she says, are covered with pictures of Ruiz, and her coworkers at the Colgate factory always ask her for the latest news from El Pescadito. "They tell me, 'If you had had three Carloses we would have made it to the World Cup for sure,'" she says.

Grill is well known for his connection to Ruiz as well. "People come up to him in the street and say, 'Oh, you're the father of El Pescado,'" Ruiz says. "'Please tell him good luck in the U.S. and that we're counting on him in the World Cup,'" Ruiz says. Grill has visited Ruiz in Los Angeles and Dallas. "Sometimes he cries when he sees me because he says he sees reflected in me everything he knows."

When Ruiz talks about his two daughters, his normally brooding expression lightens noticeably. "Andrea is 6 and Samantha is 4. I talk to them every other day, but I miss them a lot," he says. "Andrea can't sit still--she's got to be running around or doing something. Samantha is a little more tranquil. When we went to Disney World at the end of the year, Andrea was lost for 45 minutes. My mother and I were looking everywhere, but it's because she's like that and she can't stay in one place." The affection in his voice is a stark contrast to the current headline on a Guatemalan expatriate Web site proclaiming, "Daughters of El Pescadito in Guatemala without lights."

"Carlos Ruiz is a player with a lot of responsibility, and unfortunately his life is a mess," says Byron Vasquez, editor of Guatemala en USA, a small Los Angeles-based paper and Web site. "This came to our attention when his wife called us and said she didn't have electricity at her house in Guatemala, and it's true. I was there. And the way he has mistreated her, the way he has abused her--we have video as well." Vasquez hastens to make clear that the video is not of Ruiz abusing his estranged wife, Laura Mendez, but rather of her detailing a long history of the financial and emotional difficulties she says she has suffered.

Vasquez has converted his publication into something of a Ruiz watchdog. It was his site that first alerted the public to a paternity suit filed against Ruiz last summer by a California woman. That suit was dismissed last week, though neither Ruiz nor his lawyer in Los Angeles would discuss whether there had been a settlement. "In fact, we put the [paternity] story aside," Vasquez says, "because when he was here in California at the hearing, he said that he loved his family and wanted to devote himself to that--but we didn't know that he wasn't providing food for his children."

Mendez has never claimed she was starving, but Vasquez's exaggeration could be chalked up to simple righteous indignation. After all, here is Guatemala's principal role model refusing to provide his wife and two young daughters with the basic necessities of life. And there is a precedent, the 2003 charge of domestic violence. The problem is, in both cases there is ample room for doubt.

Gabriela Barrios, sports editor for Prensa Libre, Guatemala's largest daily newspaper, says that her paper followed up on Vasquez's story and found it was full of holes. "His wife comes out and says she doesn't have money to pay for electricity--but the story doesn't say that she lives in the most expensive housing area in the country," Barrios says. "She also says she is two months behind paying for the [daughters'] school--but she doesn't say that he took them all, her included, to Disney World at New Year's." Barrios says Ruiz's lawyers have receipts for ample deposits made to Mendez's account. "What happened was that he gave her the money and she spent it on something else." Prensa Libre didn't publish a story.

Barrios wishes she could say the same about the incident in 2003. "When there was a formal charge by the wife, it was covered as news, but two days later she dropped the charge and we journalists wound up looking ridiculous. We took a very moral stance supporting all abused women, and then two days later she dropped the charge after she came to a financial agreement."

Mendez says she dropped the charge because the couple reconciled. "He only hit me once, but he never did it again because I filed charges," Mendez says. "I went to the police and everything. But he has been very aggressive to me verbally. There has been a lot of psychological abuse."

At best, the situation is a very long, very public disintegration of a bad marriage. "I normally don't like to talk about my personal life," Ruiz says, his voice almost too low to hear. "It's been very painful for me and for my family; it's very embarrassing, because what happened didn't have to happen, but that's life." But if Mendez's allegations are true, they may reflect Ruiz's struggle to deal with the scrutiny and expectations that came with his sudden fame.

In Ruiz's debut season with Municipal, it quickly became clear that he was a player unlike any Guatemala had ever seen. Claudio Villa, son of Ernesto Villa, longtime Municipal president, remembers how not long into Ruiz's first season, he scored on a bicycle kick, a staggeringly difficult move to pull off with any kind of accuracy. "When do you see a 17-year-old kid do that?" Villa asks. "He's scored a lot of goals like that, and you have a lot of players, forwards, who go their whole careers without scoring like that." In fact, Ruiz has made the chilena, as it's known in Latin America, his signature move. One such effort for FC Dallas, a 2005 score against D.C. United, was recently voted the MLS "Goal of the Decade." After his chilena for Municipal, Ruiz went from being a promising talent to a superstar virtually overnight.

"It was tough to get used to," he says. "You'd walk in the street and everybody was like, 'Oh, there's El Pescado.' Everybody knows who you are, when before nobody did. If you don't have people around you that are telling you to calm down and relax, it's really tough." Ruiz's temperamental play began to earn him an international jeering section, something that came as a shock when he debuted with the national team in the run-up to the 2002 World Cup. "I didn't know what people were saying about me outside of soccer," he says. "I didn't read about it. When people came and stared at me and shouted abuse at me, it was really tough to deal with."

In essence, Ruiz's cloistered existence in the welcoming embrace of Municipal hadn't prepared him for the real world. "What it is is that I never lost," he says. "While I was in Guatemala, I always won. With Municipal we always won everything, and when I played as a kid it was the same thing--we won everything."

The next logical step for Ruiz was to go to Europe, but though his talent may have been up to the task, he wasn't prepared mentally. He made a good impression with a team in Oslo in 2000 but was secretly relieved when an international slot wasn't available. "Nobody spoke Spanish, the culture is different, the food is different," he says. "I wanted to go back to Guatemala--I was too young." In Greece later that year he was less intimidated but again let frustration take over.

After his breakout season in the MLS in 2002, European clubs came courting again--but minus the candy and flowers. The lone trip Ruiz made, to train with Wolverhampton in 2003, was essentially based on a misunderstanding. Ruiz thought that his three-month hitch had already been arranged and all he needed to do was sign. When he got there, however, the team said it would like a trial run first. Again, Ruiz was unhappy, with predictable results. He says that the club's imminent demotion from the Premiere League and other scheduling issues prevented a deal. Wolverhampton manager Dave Jones took a different stance on the team's Web site: "Carlos is one of a number of players that we take a look at during the course of a season but, unfortunately, we didn't think he could add anything extra to the squad. But I wish him the best of luck in his quest to find a club."

For now, at least, that club is FC Dallas, and if El Pescadito can return to 2002 form, it could be a formidable one. In the back, Houston native Chris Gbandi looks better than ever in the early season, while Arturo Alvarez has come on strong in the middle. Ronnie O'Brien can provide reliable service to Ruiz and his two stellar young cohorts Roberto Mina and Kenny Cooper.

But perhaps even more important than personnel is the impact of Pizza Hut Park itself. Other than its location in the northern wastes of Frisco, the new stadium is an absolute palace, and the stability it provides is even more important given the team's wanderings from venue to venue in previous years. Season ticket sales have doubled over last year, and after three games the team is in first place.

"No excuses," says coach Colin Clarke. "We've got the best facility in the MLS and as good a facility as anybody else in the world. It's all self-contained, it's got everything we could ask for. MLS Cup is coming back here at the end of the year, and our goal is to be playing in it."

The "no excuses" motto seems to be extending to Ruiz. "He does all the things you want your forwards to do: closing people down, chasing lost causes, making bad balls better," Clarke says. But he's not describing Ruiz; it's Kenny Cooper he's lavishing praise on. When it's pointed out that none of those things is exactly a strong point for Ruiz, Clarke indirectly agrees. "It's something that we want him to get better at, and he's embracing that and he's been working very, very hard this off-season."

How true that is will become apparent only in the months ahead, but one event may provide a clue. Ruiz has never tried to sow dissent in a locker room, but he's better known as a joker than a leader. Yet he delivered a serious address to the team just before the first game of the season. "I just asked them to forgive me for what happened last year, and I thanked them for their faith in me," Ruiz says. "I said that maybe I'm not much for talking but that I would show on the field my desire to be here in Dallas with the team.

"I also said that my objective was to win the championship, and if we don't win the cup this year, it will be a failure." Ironically enough, it is precisely learning to deal with failure that may signal El Pescadito's return to success.

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Rick Kennedy