One of the biggest subplots in the Philadelphia Union's 2011 season came to a head tonight: team manager Piotr Nowak officially announced after tonight's 2-1 loss to the Colorado Rapids that forward Carlos Ruiz will no longer play for the Union. The Brotherly Game has been passing along various international reports for about two months now about Ruiz and his future, and now it appears that there was, indeed, accuracy to the beliefs of some discomfort between the Ruiz and Union.
The 31-year old did not suit up for tonight's home match -- he wasn't even on the bench -- which, while a surprise, did not immediately set off alarm bells. Current rumors aside, Ruiz has always seemed to be touch-and-go when it comes to his being on the same page with his teams' management, and this entire season it has seemed like his dealings with Nowak were no different. It is, as of this time, unknown exactly what will happen with Ruiz; all we know right now is that Nowak minced no words about El Pescadito's future with the club. It sounds, however, like the Union and MLS are on the brink of agreeing to a deal to sell Ruiz's rights to an international club (we've reported on interest from Puebla FC and Veracruz of Mexico).
Where does this leave the Union now?
Well, it leaves them in a tough spot. Regardless of what you think of Ruiz, his style, and some of his antics, it's hard to argue with his impact on the club. He leads the team with six goals, and was probably alone on the roster in consistently finishing some of the top-quality (and not so top-quality) chances that his teammates work so hard to create. We'll discuss tonight's game in greater length soon enough, but with Ruiz out of the starting XI, the team looked mostly lost offensively or otherwise unable to put together the finishing touches in their buildups for about 85 minutes. Coincidence? Maybe. But just a couple of weeks ago, the team decided to rest Ruiz from their match in San Jose given his large amount of playing time in the Gold Cup, and despite this time having chance after chance after chance against the Earthquakes, they simply could not bury one and left with a 0-0 draw. In other words, Ruiz can finish, and right now, there's no evidence that anybody else on the Union can.
Sebastien Le Toux remains snakebitten, and it looks as though the frustration is slowly getting to him -- and understandably so. Danny Mwanga is still developing his skills, and looks to be a special talent, but he is (rightly) still a work in progress. As are Jack McInerney and Roger Torres. But this is a team that some five hours ago looked like the odds-on favorite to win Major League Soccer's Eastern Conference, and if they want to continue to fight for that position and for an their first-ever MLS playoff berth, they need to find someone with the skills and, more importantly, the consistency in finishing to replace Ruiz. And soon.
This brings us to our next question: how will this affect the Union's actions while this international transfer window is open? Considering the front office undoubtedly had known this was bound to happen sooner or later, it probably won't affect their attitude much -- they've probably been planning with the assumption of being without Ruiz. But it certainly changes how the fans and media will look at the two or so weeks until the transfer window closes. As we've harped on consistently over the last few days, the Union's roster is already several players short of the maximum roster size. Indeed, they're being penalized for not having enough senior members on their roster. And losing Ruiz doesn't help. Thanks to MLS's single-entity structure, we can undoubtedly rule out "cheapness" on the part of management; the Union's roster is sized the way it is based on strategic and tactical decisions made by Nowak, John Hackworth, Rob Vartughian and Nick Sakiewicz, not a mandate from the ownership group. So, the bit of cap space gained by the trade of Jordan Harvey and the bit of cap space (and, perhaps more importantly, the international slot) gained by waiving Thorne Holder, in addition to the cap space about to be gained by the Union by selling Ruiz's rights (salary of $260,004.00, total guaranteed compensation of $306,670.67) makes you think that the Union are preparing -- and are now logistically able -- to go out and attempt to make a rather big acquisition. And while the idea of saving up for a possible return of Jonathan Spector is nice, surely the focus of the front office has to shift on finding an offensive player.
We'll have much, much more on this in the coming days, but, suffice to say, this is a major change in complexion for this Union side.