Note: This piece originally ran on June 25, 2015. It was updated on August 27, 2016 and again on June 21, 2017.
HOUSTON – Anyone who has played against Carlos Ruiz knows the feeling. The kicks, the pokes, the elbows. The general way he approached the game. A skilled striker, but a world-class pest.
That was Ruiz in a nutshell. While his scoring prowess was prodigious – he finished his MLS career with 88 regular-season goals and 16 more in the postseason – his ability to target and get under a defender’s skin was legendary.
On Sept. 30, 2007, it finally hit the boiling point and produced one of the most infamous moments not only in Texas Derby history, but in MLS history.
Late in a 3-0 rout of FC Dallas, the Houston Dynamo’s Ricardo Clark had enough. Always on Ruiz duty when they played, the bulldog midfielder had spent the day butting heads with the Guatemalan international, and a Ruiz knee in Clark's back on a free kick was the tipping point.
After both clattered to the ground, Clark sprang to his feet and, before anyone could realize what was happening, he wound up and delivered a kick that no one will forget, cracking El Pescadito – translated to the Little Fish, as he was nicknamed – in the shoulder and leaving a permanent mark in Texas Derby history.
“At first, you’re staring at it in disbelief, thinking, ‘Did that really just happen?’ and then afterwards, there was an internal giggle,” former Dynamo defender and current television analyst Eddie Robinson told MLSsoccer.com. “I can say there were probably quite a few players around the league that were like, ‘Take that, Carlos, take that.’ Overall when it comes to crazy moments in league history, it’s in the top five.”
Clark was reacting only to his personal experience against Ruiz, but that reaction spoke for most.
“It was a thing where we were going at it all game; it wasn’t just that instance,” Clark told MLSsoccer.com. “I thought he’d kneed me in the back. I just reached out, and I just hit a zone where it was no thinking. I was on autopilot.
“I just remember being pulled back,” Clark continued. “I remember a yell from [then-Dynamo captain and current interim head coach] Wade [Barrett]. I think Wade saw it coming and yelled something, and I remember hitting [Ruiz] and just pandemonium after that. Most of my players had my back. Eddie [Robinson], as always, was the first one over there to have my back and to stand up for me. Honestly, I thought it was going to be a full-out brawl after that, which is why I was protecting myself.”
While Ruiz received a red card for the initial foul, Clark was ejected, hit with a $10,000 fine and an additional nine-game suspension that ruled him out of Houston's MLS Cup run and the early part of the 2008 season. He got a talking-to from then-head coach Dominic Kinnear and apologized to his teammates. While they didn’t condone what Clark had done, they understood the circumstances that led to the impulsive kick.
“I think when you play the game long enough and see reaction like that, you’re just kind of like, ‘OK, it was bound to happen,’” former Dynamo forward Brian Ching told MLSsoccer.com. “Somebody was bound to snap at some point. You want to tell him he shouldn’t have done it, but on the other side, you know why he did it, and we just kind of moved on.”
The fact that it had been brewing is no secret. Not just on the day, but throughout their battles in Orange (Houston) and Red (FC Dallas), Ruiz had been a pest to the Dynamo's players. His antics were those of a classic villain, and the Guatemalan seemingly relished the role with gusto.
Along with his goal-scoring exploits, Ruiz’s reputation was that of a professional agitator, riling the crowd and trying to find a way to use anything to his advantage.
“I’ll put it this way: A lot of players in the league probably smiled at that video when they saw it,” Ching said. “Nothing against Carlos [personally] – I don’t know him off the field – but on the field, he was one of those guys that everybody wanted to kick but his teammates. That’s what you want in a competitor, so when somebody actually did kick him, that put a smile on the faces of a lot of guys around the league.”
Eight years later, Clark and Ruiz have moved on. They made up in 2013, talking it out and trading jerseys after an MLS game.
“Everything is in the past. In soccer, sometimes you make mistakes on the field,” Ruiz told MLSsoccer.com after the two reconciled. “We talked a little bit [coming off the field]. We have a lot of respect for each other, so we changed jerseys and everything is good.”
Now 37, Ruiz recently retired, calling it quits on a 21-year career after a brief stint with FC Dallas last season. His departure leaves somewhat of a hole in the North American game -- villains of his style have become scarce.
“In a growing league, there’s always going to be storylines,” Robinson said about the role of villains in MLS. “It’s going to provide good stuff for social media, good stuff for writers and television. It certainly wouldn’t hurt. Those guys are few and far between, and I don’t think you’re going to see many of them again. Everything’s just become more professional.”
Many believe Ruiz's antics would likely earn him a few suspensions today. “I don’t think Carlos Ruiz would play very many games in this day and age, with all the cameras and stuff and the Disciplinary Committee,” said former Dynamo captain Brad Davis, who retired after spending the 2016 season with Sporting KC.
But in a heated match, Ruiz was the type of player you want on your team.
“The first time I’d played against him was in New York, and he was playing against Eddie Pope, and [Eddie had] warned me before the game how he was,” Clark said. “Little did you know, he came on the field and did the same thing and may have scored a goal and had a good game.
“It worked for him. He’s one of those players that you probably hate to play against, but you want him on your team. It’s like an Eddie Robinson, you hate to play against him but you want him on your team.”
That kick epitomized the brash nature of the Texas Derby in its early days. Houston went on to win the title that year, beating FC Dallas in a contentious playoff battle that saw Ruiz score twice. But it turned on another red card that reduced Dallas to 10 men in the pivotal second leg.
The rivalry cooled off some in the years that followed. With Houston's move to the Eastern Conference from 2011-14, a reduction in scheduled matches sapped the series of other potential memorable moments. But with the teams once again paired together in the Western Conference beginning in 2015, the rivalry has taken off once again.
“When you look at the Houston-Dallas rivalry before the conference alignment stuff, when it was really, really a rivalry, [the 2007 incident] really sums it up,” Robinson said. “I’m certain there were guys on that Dallas team that wanted to do that to some of our players, probably even me. That really sums up the rivalry that was Houston vs. Dallas.”
This piece originally ran on June 25, 2015. It was updated on August 27, 2016 and again on June 21, 2017.