WASHINGTON -- As D.C. United labored through the 2012 MLS Eastern Conference finals, with the cupboard barren of reliable goal-scoring threats behind injured stars Chris Pontius and Dwayne De Rosario, it became clear that an area D.C. needed to address in the offseason was depth up top.
After pouncing on the chance to sign former nemesis and veteran forward Carlos Ruiz through the league's allocation order last week, D.C. hopes it has found an answer for crunch time. Ruiz, meanwhile, has returned to MLS in hope of getting another chance to lift an MLS Cup trophy. It is the bizarre match made in soccer heaven.
"His real impact might not be shown in the first couple weeks, but as he gets fit and comfortable with our group, he's a guy that can change games, and in particular, if we're lucky enough to get into the playoffs, he's a guy that does some of his best work down the stretch when you need him," D.C. coach Ben Olsen said. "I thought we could've used a guy like him last year when we were in some real tough games down the stretch."
A villain in plenty of circles for his tendency to embellish and provoke, there is no doubting the 33-year-old Ruiz's productivity, even as "El Pescadito" continues to age. The 2002 Golden Boot winner, MLS MVP and MLS Cup MVP most recently played for Veracruz in Mexico's second division, where he scored 10 goals in 23 games last season. Even in the semifinal round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying last year, Ruiz netted five times -- including once against the United States -- which was tied for second-most behind Real Salt Lake forward Alvaro Saborio's six goals.
Having played for Los Angeles, FC Dallas, Toronto FC and most recently the Philadelphia Union in MLS, Ruiz is also just 12 goals shy of becoming the eighth member of the league's 100-goal club (new teammate Dwayne De Rosario was the last person to hit that mark, doing so last season). His thirst for individual accolades does not seem to be his top priority, though.
"When the opportunity came I was speaking with a couple clubs in Major League Soccer, but I wanted to come with a team who really wants to fight for a championship like D.C.," Ruiz said. "So I spoke with Ben Olsen after the (Guatemala) game against the USA last year, and the opportunity came and I'm very happy to be here. I think I can bring experience. There's a lot of young players here, so I can teach what I've learned in my long career."
D.C. boasts youngsters like second-year pro Nick DeLeon and 20-year-old Young Designated Player Rafael, who can glean knowledge from Ruiz in addition to captain De Rosario and the likes of assistant coach and former standout forward Josh Wolff.
"The first thing he said to me was, 'Anything you want me to do to help the younger guys and the team, I'm there for you,'" De Rosario said. "For him to say that to me means a lot. I know he's come here to do the business, so we're happy to have him on board."
Even Pontius, entering his fifth season and coming off a career year in which he scored 12 goals, could benefit from Ruiz's presence and thinks he can be a valuable asset.
"He's a proven goal scorer, and it's a guy you want to have on your team, it's a guy you don't want to play against, so obviously we need to get him fit and ready to go," Pontius said. "It might take a little bit longer, because he joined us later, but I like the idea."
Ruiz is "a ways" from being 90-minute match fit, according to Olsen, but he could still play a part in Saturday's opener against the Houston Dynamo. Ruiz said he has been training on his own at his home in Dallas throughout December, January and February, and Olsen said he could "probably go and play 10-15 minutes today."
As Olsen hinted at, though, he's not looking for an impact from Ruiz off the bat. It's the big-moment goals in October, November and -- D.C. hopes -- December that he covets, no matter what his reputation might be around the league and even among D.C.'s loyal fanbase.
"We've had several chats before he came," Olsen said. "His words to me essentially were, 'Have faith in me. I will repay you.'
"I would always want a guy like that on my team. I didn't even know he had such a rep, but apparently he's a controversial figure. I love the guy. I think he's a great guy, I think he's a great signing, the guys love him already.
"I know what type of guy he is, and I know when he steps on the field he plays hard, he plays with passion and he wants to win for whoever's uniform he's wearing. That's enough for me."