El Pescadito Returns to Pennsylvania

Last week, the Philadelphia Union signed 31 year-old Guatemalan international forward Carlos Ruiz, a.k.a. “El Pescadito” (“the little fish” in Spanish), throwing a confusing curveball to Philadelphia sports fans. My guess is we’ll be hearing the nickname more around here, since the Phillies already have a Central American player named Carlos Ruiz on their roster (he’s their catcher, hails from Panama, and is nicknamed “Chooch,” which I’m guessing we’ll be hearing a lot more around here now as well).

The Philadelphia Union logo.While the Guatemalan, soccer-playing Ruiz has competed all over the world and is well known in his homeland as the country’s all-time leading goal scorer in international competition and is well known among Major League Soccer fans in this country from his days with the L.A. Galaxy and FC Dallas, what people might not know is that he’s played in Pennsylvania before — in central Pa., particularly.

Way back in 2000, when he was a promising 20 year-old playing professionally for Municipal in Guatemala and a member of the country’s U-23 national team, the North American qualifying tournament for the Summer Olympics was held, bizarrely, in Hershey, Pennsylvania, of all places.

Unlike the World Cup, the Olympics are contested by countries’ U-23 teams, rather than the full national teams. I was actually lucky enough to have met Ruiz back then, as each of the colleges and universities near Hershey basically adopted one of the national teams and hosted all of their training sessions. I was in charge of athletic communications for the school that got Guatemala, and I got to work with them quite a bit in coordinating local media coverage.

HersheyPark Stadium

The scene of the 2000 Olympic qualifiers.

That wasn’t an easy task, as the head coach was a little more than slightly paranoid about anyone from the other teams turning on the local TV news and seeing anything that might potentially give away the tiniest detail about their training sessions and game strategies. For the first day or two, they were more like the Brigadoon national team, as they would mysteriously vanish when cameras approached, and then magically reappear when they retreated. Eventually, we got things sorted out.

On the whole, though, it was a great experience, especially since at the time I was still in my first year out of college and was the same age as nearly all of the players on the team. Carlos Ruiz certainly stood out back then, but I never would have guessed that in another two years he would jump from Municipal to the Los Angeles Galaxy and end up as the MLS Most Valuable Player his first year in the league, nor would I have guessed at the time that he would eventually become Guatemala’s all-time leading scorer in international competition.

His signing now is definitely a good pickup for the Union. After an offseason largely spent finding ways to plug up the obvious defensive holes from their inaugural season, bringing in Ruiz fills another big need, which is taking some opposing defensive pressure off Sebastien Le Toux and Danny Mwanga. Even if he isn’t quite at the same level as a goal scorer he was when he played for L.A., he’ll be a helpful presence in relieving pressure. Also, having Le Toux take corner kicks, which seemed kind of strange for much of last year when he was the team’s only reliable scorer, would make more sense now with Ruiz on the field at the same time and Mwanga with a year of pro experience under his belt.

Besides, I’m of the opinion that he still has quite a few productive years left. While he struggled to score in the first half of the 2010-11 Greek Super League season for Aris Thessaloniki, somebody doesn’t score three goals in a handful of Europa League games over that same span by being washed up. Context is certainly going to be key for Ruiz’s scoring opportunities, and potentially having Le Toux and Mwanga on the field at the same time will definitely create opportunities for him.

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