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When 1-0 is not enough…

As Peter Nowak vaulted himself into Carlos Ruiz’s waiting arms, I felt the distinct taste of vomit rising in the back of my throat.

Not just because the mounting of coach onto player should NEVER occur, but because the gesture spoke volumes of the love affair evolving between Ruiz and the Union manager. With this latest goal, Ruiz has seemingly cemented himself in the starting XI for the foreseeable future.

But why?

True, against Seattle he put in his best performance of the season. But, playing better than the he did against New York, Vancouver, Los Angeles or Houston surely didn’t take much. In each of those matches, Ruiz’s speed, touch and chemistry with his teammates were completely absent. On Saturday against Seattle, his touch returned and after an initial twenty-minute stretch where he turned the ball over no less than five times, Ruiz began to show a cultured passing arsenal.

But the speed and the chemistry? Still completely non-existent.

So, why then has Nowak chosen to hitch himself so completely to this fading star? Should not his love and adoration be showered onto a youngster who he is molding into the next MLS superstar? If not Danny Mwanga, then at least Jack McInerney, the little guy whose fire and toughness emulate the style of his manager.

Why have the Union made Ruiz the featured photograph on everything from commercials to match day publicity? Sebastien Le Toux is coming off an MVP caliber year, and the Union have named a new captain in Faryd Mondragon. Yet, their website is full to bursting with articles and photographs of Carlos Ruiz’s grinning mug. Why has this man been thrust on us as the new face of the franchise—OUR franchise?

Rewind to the end of 2010

Forget the goalkeeping woes, for a minute, if you can. As the Union’s initial campaign wound to a close, the excitement for Year Two was palpable. While there were certainly kinks to iron out in the team’s first offseason, there was one certainty: with an attack run by the formidable combination of deserved MVP and ROY candidates, the future was bright.

Le Toux and Mwanga had developed a chemistry that would lead to buckets of goals in the years to come. It would only take a few creative adjustments and acquisitions in the midfield behind them to provide a more consistent pipeline of service, one that would yield even more success for the team’s talented attacking tandem.

The offseason came and went. Mondragon, Valdes and Carroll were good signings and all have shown well, solidifying the defense in ways no Union fan could have ever predicted. But where was the creativity going to come from? What was the plan to turn large spells of possession into meaningful and potent attack? None of the draft picks appear ready to contribute immediately, and the team dispatched improving young players like Andrew Jacobson (currently starting and playing extremely well for Dallas, by all accounts) and Shea Salinas.

And then came Ruiz

Recalled from the wilderness that is the Greek League, his best days are far behind him. Ruiz excelled in an MLS that was a much weaker product than what we are treated to now on a weekly basis. Long linked with the Union, initial expectations seemed to suggest he might fill out Alejandro Moreno’s minutes as a third striker, banging bodies, challenging defenders and generally making a nuisance of himself in order to free up time and space for Mwanga and Le Toux to produce.

But following his signing, the Union were tripping over themselves to hype their new acquisition in a manner that we had never before seen. Of the paltry three videos available detailing the team’s preseason progress, one was dedicated purely to highlights of Ruiz scoring goals back in the early 2000s. Article upon article, photo upon photo, all began to crop up about the Guatemalan attacker. Not of Mondragon, who has had an illustrious European career, nor of Valdes or Carroll, three players who would all fill larger needs for the Union in the upcoming campaign.

This propagandistic foreshadowing only slightly softened the blow when the Union took the pitch for their opener and it was Ruiz partnering Le Toux at the top of the formation. Some bloggers were quick to point out that Mwanga started the first season on the bench and would continue to excel in a “supersub” role. While this may be factually correct, it is irrelevant in view of the first season as a whole. True, Mwanga began his first year coming off the bench and provided some important late-game heroics. But as he grew comfortable with the speed of play in MLS and Le Toux as his partner, he matured into a full-time starter. Anyone who points to his fading form at the end of the season conveniently forgets both the nagging shoulder injury that he bravely fought through and the fact that the longer, arduous MLS schedule places more wear and tear on rookies who are still adapting to the professional game.

After their rookie campaigns, would Andy Najar do anything but start? How about Tim Ream? The answer to both of those questions is a loud and obvious “NO.”

So why is Danny Mwanga, a player that I, and most of Philadelphia, would argue is better than both of Najar and Ream, coming off the bench? Why would Peter Nowak ignore a connection as potent as Mwanga-Le Toux?

Back to the vomit in my throat

I will no longer mince words: I cannot stand Carlos Ruiz as a soccer player.

In 2010, Sebastien Le Toux won the hearts of every fan at PPL Park with his tireless effort, creating something from nothing and never giving up on a ball, a play or a match.

Carlos Ruiz is his opposite.

Whenever talk of acquiring a Designated Player arises, the Union front office and coaching staff are quick to remind us that this team has no need for a prima donna-esque star, one who might take away from the overall work ethic and team dynamics of the club. Yet, that is exactly what Carlos Ruiz is. Lazy and sullen, through the early portion of this season Ruiz has helped to turn the Union’s high pressure, up-tempo, possession game into a muddy puddle of loose passes and sluggish play.

And his listless play has not only kept Mwanga from his rightful place on the pitch, it is compromising Le Toux’s ability to affect a match.

Not only is there zero interplay between the two, but Ruiz’s selfish positioning in the center of the park makes Le Toux run the extra mile to avoid not just defenders, but also his strike partner. He is clearly laboring to both bring Ruiz into the game and also to find his own. But time and again, once Ruiz has made his first play on any ball, the move inevitably dies.

Watching the Red Bulls match from my couch, I was dumbfounded to see Ruiz simply not move. Like the now-overweight, lethargic striker we have all played against in rec leagues, Ruiz eagerly attacks any ball played perfectly to his feet. Yet once his pass has been made or his flick attempted, there is no chasing, there is no secondary run, there is no supporting the defense following a turnover. There were even times when Le Toux—ever diligent in his defensive duties—actually switched fields, passing the stationary Ruiz, to follow the play, with the Guatemalan striker looking on, rooted to his place in the center circle. And suppose that the ball played to him isn’t perfect? He simply isn’t interested and is content to allow the opposition to collect without pressure and start back the other way.

The diving. And the whining. And the cynical play.

Philadelphia sports fans like toughness, players who work hard and sacrifice for the team. In this respect, Carlos Ruiz is an embarrassment to us all. And for all the gyrating on the ground, the elaborate tumbles and the DISGRACEFUL clutching of his face, it isn’t as if he is getting the calls. Say what you will about MLS officials (and there is certainly a lot to be said), they are not going for Ruiz’s con job. And good for them. If you are a Union fan who screams bloody murder every time Ruiz crashes to earth, you have lost your privilege to criticize MLS officiating. Sorry, but Ruiz’s approach to the game is antithetical to both sportsmanship and good behavior in our beautiful game. When Alejandro Moreno hit the deck last year, Union fans ostracized him as a diver, and his time spent with the Union was predictably short. But Moreno’s crimes now appear passable when compared with Ruiz. Moreno would battle a defender before going over, in search of a free kick. Diving yes, but nowhere near as cynical as Ruiz, who engages players with his mouth, not his body, and then goes over holding his head, a move widely reviled in the soccer community as the lowest of the low.

Next time Ruiz gets in a player’s face and then falls to the ground, pathetically attempting to earn a caution or ejection, think of Sebastien Le Toux fighting down the wing, a fullback draped across his back, or Danny Mwanga valiantly cutting across the middle being hacked at by one, then two midfielders, but not surrendering the ball. That is my Union, the one I grew to love in 2010, and the one I want to see return soon.

My two-fold frustration

First, to Peter Nowak: Why? Why would you do this to your team? Our team? How can a player like Danny Mwanga, a player looking to parlay a fantastic rookie season into a breakout sophomore campaign, ever trust you now that you’ve betrayed him?

Make no mistake: By the close of business in 2010, Mwanga was a certain starter. Coming into 2011, he has seen his job snatched from him for reasons other than merit. For a young player’s confidence, that can be devastating. But he continues to go about his business admirably—there has been no griping in the media, and every time he is given an opportunity to play has looked strong and menacing, the matured version of his 2010 self we all hoped we would see.

From the beginning, we all knew of Nowak’s propensity to avoid playing young players, but surely we could have never expected this. Certainly, Carlos Ruiz is not the only reason for the Union’s meager offensive production. But through the early portion of this season, aside from the dearth of creativity in the midfield, he is reason number two with a bullet. Great players make those around them better, and good players contribute to team goals. Ruiz does neither. I would trade his two early goals for team chemistry any day of the week, even if that means surrendering a few of our early season points, because the season is long and we can’t rely on getting all the bounces and favorable refereeing decisions forever.

Second, Ruiz is not the face of my Union. When it comes to marketing the product on the field, do yourself a favor and simply watch this team play. We have headliners galore. Sebastien Le Toux came within a whisker of winning the Most Valuable Player of the entire league, for crying out loud. Danny Mwanga is a superstar waiting to explode. Faryd Mondragon is not only the team captain, but a tower of strength in the back. Carlos Valdes has quickly become an All-Star candidate and is at the beginning of an incredibly promising career for both club and country. Sheanon Williams is developing into one of the premier right backs in the league. Keon Daniel has earned almost 50 international caps for Trinidad & Tobago, and he’s only 24. Brian Carroll has been to the MLS promised land and is a U.S. international. Danny Califf is the kind of rock solid leader we cannot get enough of. Zac MacMath, Amobi Okugo and Jack McInerney have represented the United States internationally and have bright extremely bright futures both in Philadelphia and with the Nats.

That makes eleven players, every one of them more deserving to be the face of the franchise than Ruiz. Every single one. And they are the reason I love this team. When the Union first began selecting players, way back when, management sold an idea of youth first and team first. Thus the reason for no Designated Players, thus the reason for working hard to procure so many draft picks rather than trade for established veterans. And it is a successful formula. It was working. The team was developing in the right direction.

Until Ruiz.

I truly do not understand.

Photo: Nicolae Stoian

26 Comments

  1. You’ve certainly presented your opinion clearly and forcefully. I completely understand, and share in, your aversion to diving, and I’ve seen Ruiz do his fair share of it – though not as much as you’d expect from all the hand-wringing we’ve heard since the preseason. The rest of your description of his play does not ring true for me. Not to say that he had been perfect – he has not – but he had shown a diversity and adaptability in his playing style. Sometimes he parks himself on the pitch at a dangerous spot, yes, and other times he shows great tenacity and grit pressuring a defender, while still other times he displays a very clever technical ability on the ball. He if clearly still finding his way with the Union, but the important thing is that he had improved each and every game so far -and netted two of our four goals. As for why he has become a public face of the franchise, maybe the number of new fans showing up with Guatemalan national team jerseys has something to do with it.

    • Let me clarify that Ruiz is far from my favorite player on the pitch. In fact, every one of the eleven players you listed beats him on my list too. I just think much of the criticism thrown at him has been highly unfair, and I suspect based on preconceptions rather than observation. The fact is, Ruiz has not been that bad, has been improving noticeably, and may yet become a consistently formidable striker for the Union.

  2. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not El Pescadito fan numero uno, but saying that he makes you want to vomit is a bit much. I agree: Ruiz. Is. Lazy. I don’t need to tell you how frustrating it is to watch him chase a ball 10 feet before giving up on it, or standing in one spot waiting for the play to come to him. And at times he makes Freddie Ljungberg look more honest than Abe Lincoln.

    But I do like his flair: when he’s not standing still catching flies he’s attempting cheeky lobbed shots from 50 yards out and bicycles inside the six – I thought his lay-off to Le Toux in the 51’ on Saturday was fantastic, and it was nice to finally see a free kick that not only beat the keeper but was actually on frame. I’d like to see more of that – not just from Ruiz but the entire team.

    Ruiz will never be a workhorse like Le Toux, or as dynamic as Mwanga, but I do believe his game will improve and the team will continue to gel. In the meantime I think someone needs a nap.

    • Were you frustrated when seeing him hustle down the right side last Saturday and slide in an attempt to keep the ball in play? For every “lazy” play Ruiz makes, there’s the concurrent glimmer of what can be. We don’t have to LIKE every player on the Union’s roster, but at least support them. I’m not saying we can’t question and/or challenge them to play better, criticize their hustle (or lack thereof), but to show this much disdain towards one guy wearing the navy and gold is a bit much, in my opinion. Ruiz’s pre-Union reputation is tainting people’s perception of what he can do, and HAS done so far in this short span of a season.

  3. Great Article, dead on with this one. We are definitely lucky Mwanga is mature enough to handle a coach who is playing favorites over merit. What about the New York game? how did we score? MWANGA and torres put pressure on their center backs. It’s amazing what little pressure will make defenders do: turn the ball over and score to get 3 points because the forwards are the FIRST LINE of DEFENSE. If Ruiz was still in at that point, he would be at midfield walking back and forth as the defenders move the ball around. Mwanga deserves the start no question in my mind.

  4. Since we are being honest. I’m not a fan of NOWAK. Ultimately it was him who made the decision to bring Ruiz to the U and it is NOWAK who continues to play him instead of the MWANGA/LE TOUX duo…NOWAK blows and will ultimately cost the U like he did against Sounders

    • Correct me if I’m wrong, but a lapse in defense cost the U against SSFC, not Nowak OR Ruiz, who wasn’t even on the pitch when Seattle scored.

    • yeah, what a dirty, no-good moron. All he did was build a team completely from scratch which sits in first place in the East after 13 months. Replace him immediately.

      (btw, sarcasm not directed solely at Los, lots of people seem to be giving Nowak the Reid treatment, except much earlier in tenure)

      • While I’ve never claimed to be a giant Nowak supporter (his smug, rude demeanor and creepy secrecy took care of that), I am on board with the majority of the moves made in constructing this roster. That I was able to list 11 players who I support whole-heartedly is no small feat for a team with as short a history as the Union.

        That is why I am so perplexed by Ruiz. I still am at a loss to determine why he, a player who at best is good half the time (that fair?) is worth upsetting a strike tandem that could legitimately challenge for best in the league.

        It is putting the entire development of the team on pause and the players who are feeling the brunt of it are the very two guys who made us believe in the first place.

      • Couldn’t tell since every post is a whiny diatribe. Perhaps some qualifiers like that would be a bit helpful.

      • Nah, not every one. It’s just that after he wrote an awesome rant a few weeks back and many of our readers loved it, I asked him to blow off steam like that once a week, if it’s warranted. Eli’s Weekly Rant, basically. And on good weeks, it might be Eli’s Weekly Rave. (It’s just that our headlines don’t have enough room to write all that along with the more specific headline.) Have you not seen any of Eli’s raves? Here’s one: https://phillysoccerpage.net/2010/10/26/raves-amobi-okugo/

        Aside from that, I agree: Ruiz over Mwanga is mind-boggling, for all the reasons Eli stated.

  5. “I will no longer mince words: I cannot stand Carlos Ruiz as a soccer player”

    lol, what minced words? Haven’t you been saying this since Mwanga was benched on First Kick?

  6. I’m ultimately not a fan of Nowak’s decision making. I feel he makes the wrong lineup choices and wrong substitutions in particular against the sounders. I believe that his decisions during the sounders game made it easy for the sounders to adjust to our tactics. To me as soons as Migs came off the green light came on for Montero to come in and steal two points. Nowak should have known that Montero was gonna make an appearance and adjust to the game following the Montero sub.

    • Out of curiosity, what would you do differently when protecting a lead?
      Migs was replaced because he held a YC and he’s replaceable enough to preempt a 10-man scenario. Mapp for Ruiz certainly shouldn’t be criticized on this article’s comments, even if Mapp wasn’t quite as effective in his 10 minutes than we hoped.

      • Well by the YC reasoning than Okugo should have been subbed off after the 65th minute. I do not believe that Nowak was worried about a RC. He wanted another goal. That being said I would not have made any changes until SSFC did. But in the senario that played out this past weekend. I would have brought on Farfan for Migs and moved Nakazawa to the middle and Farfan on either wing. Also I would have brought on Gonzalez for Ruiz instead of bringing in Mapp for ten minutes. If you watch the final ten minutes of the game, you will see that Mapp played a pretty poor ten minutes and you could see an equalizer coming.

  7. 3 goals in 6 games. get over it.

  8. Nowak has a lot of flaws, but picking his team based on the opposition isn’t one of them. He throws out the team he likes come rain, snow, or Montero. Nowak made the Migs sub because he wanted a second goal. Isn’t that what we’ve been asking for? You don’t change your tactics based on a recovering Freddy Montero.
    @Los – you’re dead on with your criticisms of Nowak. He has yet to field a team that shows real cohesion beyond the back five. What really irritates the fans is how Nowak can be so trigger-happy with some moves (the constantly changing RB last season, the ever-fluctuating roster) while so stubborn with others (Seitz, Migs, a narrow formation, Fred on the wing). Decisions like those make it look like the coach plays favorites – like he believes some players should be allowed to play through their struggles while others are on an incredibly short leash.
    Was Ruiz’s improved performance against Seattle worth all the minutes that Mwanga didn’t play up to that point?

  9. We can tinker with the midfield – why can’t we tinker up front? Is there some rule against bringing Ruiz off the bench one game to see what sixty minutes looks like with Mwanga and Le Toux back up top? Its early in the season, but if there’s uncertainty enough to have ump-teen lineups in the middle of the park, why isn’t there room for an experiment at forward?

    For that matter, Nowak has downplayed the effectiveness of speed thus far. Raw as they may be, without Salinas, Agorsor Houapeu and to the less raw extent Mwanga, represent the speed on the team. I don’t think that dimension has been used effectively at all early in the season.

  10. Never having heard of Carlos Ruiz, I did not have any inherent bias against him when we signed him. I am absolutely amazed by the hate Ruiz is getting here. Quite honestly, he has outplayed Le Toux this year. In my mind, unquestionably. Le Toux can run all he wants, but his absolutely abysmal first touch has killed so many attacking opportunities that I’ve gotten to the point where I just expect a turnover on his first touch. He had a prime opportunity to put away SSFC and failed to do so because his first touch took him way away from where he needed to be.

    If all you needed to do to be good in this game was run, we could sign that guy who just broke the Boston Marathon record. But you also need to be able to handle the ball, and Le Toux hasn’t this year. If we’re replacing a striker, I’d like to see Le Toux sent to the bench in favor of Mwanga, who’s played a holding role quite well. But benching the only guy on our team who has been consistently good attacking the net seems absolutely asinine. The position is “striker”, not “runner”, and I don’t think letting feelings for Ruiz and Le Toux get in the way of this distinction is a good idea.

    • True, Ruiz had a much better game against Seattle. But in no way does this amount to consistency. Don’t forget the first 4 league matches of the season. If he builds on Seattle, we can talk, but it is still one decent showing.

      • Ruiz has had better games in all 5 games IMO. Aside from the one assist (to Ruiz!), Le Toux has done absolutely nothing besides run a lot, but not productively. He has not helped link the back to the attack. He has not made himself a good target in good positions. He has consistently given away the good opportunities he HAS had. I don’t care that Ruiz isn’t running as much. He’s done a good job making himself a target out of the back, and he’s done a good job putting himself in positions to score, and he’s actually capitalized. Le Toux has only managed 2 shots on goal in 10 total shots, and I cannot stress how abysmal his first touch is right now, which has had a much bigger impact on the offense floundering than anything Ruiz has done or not done.

      • In all fairness to Ruiz, let’s not confuse Le Toux’s poor touch this year with Ruiz having good touches. Before the Seattle match, Ruiz’s passes connected so rarely you’d think his feet were using AT&T. Neither striker has been good. They’ve used each other less than my old roommate used the dishwasher.
        This isn’t about Ruiz vs. Le Toux. It’s about breaking up the Le Toux/Mwanga partnership that appeared to blossom in 2010.

      • I think that’s horribly unfair to Ruiz. I wish we had the advanced statistics to argue this on proper ground, but we’re waiting on Opta, so we don’t.

        My big problem is that everybody is blaming everything on Ruiz, when he’s far from the biggest problem. I don’t care how much chemistry Mwanga and Le Toux had, when you play as piss-poorly as Le Toux has this year, you’re not going to play well with anybody, no matter how much chemistry you have. On the same token, Ruiz hasn’t been given an opportunity to develop chemistry with Le Toux more because of Le Toux than because of anything he’s doing.

        I think Mwanga should be starting. I think it should be over Le Toux. Our offense needs its top two strikers starting, and Le Toux is not one of them.

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