LAKE MARY, Fla. — D.C. United signed a prolific striker this week, a former MVP and MLS Cup scorer whose bicycle kick in 2005 (against United) was voted the best goal in the league’s first 10 seasons. Carlos Ruiz is also the Guatemalan national team’s career leader and among the most lethal finishers in Central American soccer.
So why did United supporters turn to online message boards and polls in droves to register their abhorrence about the move?
Throughout his MLS career, which began in Los Angeles in 2002, Ruiz has been the quintessential sports villain. If he played for your team, you loved him. When he played against your team, you loathed him.
He wouldn’t just beat your team with a wicked kick; he would use every sneaky trick in the book to draw a penalty kick or have an opponent ejected. Along with the spectacular goals, the most lasting images from Ruiz’s career are defenders standing over him and shouting after he has taken a theatric fall.
Following his first training session with United on Friday, Ruiz acknowledged the challenge of converting detractors.
“I think I am going to win those fans with work,” he said, “and with goals.”
United had been pursuing Ruiz, 33, for several months and claimed him in MLS’s allocation process Wednesday. He has not played competitively for a club since last June, when he fell out of favor with Veracruz in Mexico. He did, however, score five goals in four World Cup qualifiers in the fall for Guatemala.
To stay fit, Ruiz worked through the winter with a trainer in Dallas. He will need an additional few weeks to gain match fitness and bond with new teammates.
“This deal wasn’t made with short-term thinking in mind,” said Coach Ben Olsen, who does not plan to use Ruiz in Saturday’s preseason finale against the Philadelphia Union. “We will get him right and see how he fits in.”
Ruiz has been the featured striker much of his career, but with several forwards already in place for United, he will have to earn playing time.
“I understand my situation at this moment,” said Ruiz, whose 88 career regular season goals are third among active MLS players, behind Los Angeles’s Landon Donovan and United’s Dwayne De Rosario. “I have to win this position.”
Said Olsen: “We’ve had very good chats. We have a good understanding of his role. He is going to have to prove he belongs on the field. Knowing him, he will get there. When that time comes, I’m excited about the prospects of him helping us.”
De Rosario and Lionard Pajoy are expected to start the March 2 opener at Houston. Rafael, a 20-year-old Brazilian, is also vying for time on the front line.
United midfielder Marcelo Saragosa, Ruiz’s teammate in Los Angeles and Dallas, said Ruiz “smells the goal. The guy can help us. He is going to be good here.”
If, indeed, he is, those skeptical fans will forget about the past. Most of it, anyway.
“I know the people, the fans, have doubts about me, but it was the same with every team I played for,” he said. “The only thing I can do is play with all of my heart. I want to show the people I care about this game and will play hard for them. All I want is respect from the people. After the season, we can judge whether I did my job.”
United notes: The club reached a settlement with Albanian striker Hamdi Salihi, who was owed about $500,000 under the terms of a guaranteed contract. The amount was not disclosed.
In the works for several weeks, the deal cleared salary cap and roster space. Salihi, who had six goals in 22 regular season appearances last year, was not in United’s plans and hadn’t been invited to training camp. He is expected to sign with a Chinese club. . . .
English midfielder Lewis Neal was granted permanent residency, meaning he will no longer count against the foreign player limit. United will use one of two available international slots on Canadian midfielder Kyle Porter, who has been in camp for several weeks. Panamanian midfielder Marcos Sanchez remains under consideration. . . .
United must also decide soon whether to sign Honduran attacker Walter Martinez, who has permanent residency. Forward Ryan Richter was cut Friday, the second straight year he has narrowly missed out on a roster spot.