Fish Story

Page 7 of 7

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