As the final two minutes of overtime ticked off in the opening
MLS playoff game between the Los Angeles Galaxy and the Kansas
City Wizards on Sept. 25, the Rose Bowl air seemed to thicken
with anticipation. Galaxy midfielder Simon Elliott floated a free
kick from the right side that curved toward a clot of players in
the box. As the ball flew by, a dark, sweaty head poked out of
the scrum to knock it into the Kansas City net, setting off a
roar from the crowd and a storm of teal-and-gold confetti in the
stands. This was the kind of moment budding strikers the world
over dream of. This was the kind of moment L.A. rookie forward
Carlos Ruiz has about every third game. "Typical night for him,"
said Galaxy coach Sigi Schmid. "He loves pressure. He is one of
the best pressure players I have ever coached."
That fact was evident through the first four games of the
postseason. The header was his second goal of the game against
the Wizards; he netted two more in the 5-2 clincher against
Kansas City on Oct. 2 and had a brace last Saturday night in a
4-0 victory over the Colorado Rapids in Game 1 of the semifinals.
The 23-year-old Guatemalan may be precisely what the top-seeded
Galaxy, which has played in and lost three of the six MLS
championship games, needs to shed its bridesmaid status. He
scored more than half his team's regular-season goals (box,
below), with his feet, with his head, on penalty kicks, on
crosses, on corners, from close in and far out and often in the
game's deciding minutes (12 goals after the 75th minute). "He has
scored more ways than you can imagine," says L.A. defender Alexi
Lalas. "Like all great scorers, he senses where the ball is going
to be; he smells it. And he has a belief that he is going to
score regardless of the situation."
Schmid first became aware of the 5'9", 170-pound Ruiz during an
Olympic qualifying tournament in Hershey, Pa., two years ago and
signed him last winter specifically because he could score. But
no one in the organization foresaw the player Ruiz would become.
"I would not have thought in my wildest dreams that Carlos would
do what he has done for us," says assistant coach Ralph Perez. "I
was hoping for 10 to 15 goals, counting playoffs."
One reason Ruiz can rack up goals at a record rate is that he can
take as much punishment as he dishes out, which is plenty. He
ranked fifth in the league in fouls suffered (71) and first in
fouls committed (71). "In my career I do good things and bad
things," says Ruiz, who earned a six-month suspension from FIFA
for tripping a ref while protesting a call during the '99 Pan Am
Games. "Fouling is a bad thing. But when you have a strong desire
to score a goal, you put extra intensity into it, and sometimes
you commit a foul."
Ruiz has been passionate about scoring since he started kicking a
little plastic ball around the dirt plazas of his Guatemala City
barrio as a six-year-old. At 12 he borrowed a friend's cleats to
try out for the youth academy of the local pro squad, CSD
Municipal. After making the cut, he debuted at 16 in 1995 and
joined the national team in 1999. Along the way he picked up the
nickname El Pescadito (Little Fish), by which he's still known,
though Ruiz has long forgotten its origin.
Unlike other foreign players the Galaxy has had--notably aging
Mexican national team stars Jorge Campos, Carlos Hermosillo and
Luis Hernandez--Ruiz is eager to play and a great fit for the team
and the league. And he has another quality you don't always see
in pro athletes: He's openly grateful for his opportunities and
mindful of his roots. After every goal he scores, Ruiz rips off
his jersey to reveal a T-shirt bearing one of two messages, in
Spanish: I LOVE YOU GUATEMALA. THANK YOU FOR YOUR SUPPORT, OR, NO
MATTER HOW BIG YOU GET, DON'T FORGET WHERE YOU CAME FROM.
After he was chosen for the All-Star Game in August, Ruiz paid
for his childhood pal Angel Godinez, the friend who had lent him
the cleats for the tryout a decade ago, to fly from L.A. to
Washington, D.C. But the true test of Ruiz's loyalty will come
fairly soon, when he becomes, inevitably, a much bigger star than
he is now.
COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT LABERGE/GETTY IMAGES ROUGHED UP Ruiz is one of the most fouled players in MLS.
COLOR PHOTO: LUCY NICHOLSON/AP (INSET) [See caption above]
Carrying the Load
No MLS player had a greater percentage of his team's goals this
season than L.A.'s Carlos Ruiz, whose 24 scores accounted for
more than half the Galaxy's total. It's the first time in the
league's seven-year history that a player has accounted for more
than 50% of his club's goals. Here's how the top five scorers
ranked by percentage of their teams' goals.
Player/Team Goals Pct.
Carlos Ruiz/Los Angeles Galaxy 24/44 .545
Taylor Twellman/New England Revolution 23/49 .469
Jeff Cunningham/Columbus Crew 16/44 .364
Ante Razov/Chicago Fire 14/43 .326
Ariel Graziani/San Jose Earthquakes 14/45 .311