Real Salt Lake inking a contract extension with Pablo Ruiz is an absolutely massive deal, and I, for one, am incredibly excited about what it means for the future.
Ruiz has been a bright spot in an extremely dim year for Real Salt Lake, with his improvement from prior years, unexpected return from loan, and ability to control the midfield proving a notable success story.
Why is this an important, exciting deal for Real Salt Lake? The reasons are plentiful.
The deal is of maximum length
The deal looks like it came a little bit down to the wire, with the extension being announced as ending in 2025. Given the max contract length by FIFA regulation is five years, we know this is as long as it can be, and it’s a real statement of fatih in the player from those in power at the club.
The renewal, then, which extends out five years says a lot about that. It is, of course, no guarantee that he’ll be around for that full time, as given his improvement, it’s not hard to imagine that he’d be a target for clubs outside the U.S. — but sustained success will be necessary to show that, and this gives him the opportunity to do so.
After a very good season for himself, Ruiz will be given the chance to show he can continue becoming a top player in this league, and it may give him a chance to show his worth to overseas scouts.
Did Mike Pekte nearly ruin Ruiz?
One needs only think back to Ruiz’s first season at the club to see how badly things could have gone. 2018 was a bad year for Ruiz — and it was not all entirely his fault. Having shown us now that he’s very much a midfielder, one can recall then-coach Mike Petke playing him repeatedly (and unsuccessfully, it must be said) at left back.
RSL scout (ex-scout? It’s difficult to know where that has landed) Andy Williams has spoken about this very thing in the last few months, saying that during his first year at the club, Ruiz was being scouted by Manchester United.
We came up with a list of players to scout for a trip to Chile. We made a list of about 6 that we needed to watch while down there. Dane was the assistant scout at that time so we decided he should go on his first trip by himself since he had a guy there to take him around. #RSL— Andy Williams (@bommadog) September 3, 2020
He ends up going another that wasn't on schedule and texted me 20 mins into the game and says you need watch this kid. So I do and I watched his last 2 games that season and told Dane immediately grab him after the and talk to him or go down at halftime and do it #RSL— Andy Williams (@bommadog) September 3, 2020
Fast forward we eventually get him. During his 1st season the Manchester United US scout came to RioT to watch him 3 times to watch him play. Those 3 games he dressed twice and the other 1 sat in the stands. ♂️ #RSL— Andy Williams (@bommadog) September 3, 2020
This became part of a larger pattern: Plenty saw value in Pablo Ruiz; Petke, apparently, did not. It led to his eventually being benched in 2018, earning only very sparse minutes, before being somehow used as a last-ditch effort piece in a playoff match despite the evident lack of trust form his coach. (It was, in so many ways, a sign of things to come under Petke.)
This eventually led to Ruiz going on loan with third-division Austrian side Pinzgau Saalfelden, where he bossed games, scored goals, earned assists, and was generally one of the top players every time he set feet on the pitch.
A chance return from loan
Ruiz, it seemed, was done at Real Salt Lake, with his successful loan spell extended. He was a fulcrum for Pinzgau, was enjoying the game there, and all parties seemed to intend for him to stay there, at least for a little longer.
But when it came time to renew his Austrian work visa, there were apparently complications. Those have never been fully discussed publicly, but it was all the same an issue. As a result, Real Salt Lake, with the player under contract, brought him back, and he started playing in the 2020 preseason. It was not what anyone would have expected.
It was not immediately evident — on the field, at least — how much of a change had been undertaken in Ruiz. He didn’t play in the club’s first two matches, nor in the first match of MLS is Back.
From that second game of the tournament, he became essentially undroppable, with just the occasional rotation seeing him sat on the bench. And it wouldn’t have happened had he been able to return to Pinzgau on loan.
A new player
If you had Pablo Ruiz as Real Salt Lake’s best player in 2020, it’s likely you changed your mind in July. Expectations were low, and so it was that he began his rise.
Ruiz started showing that he was capable of running the middle of the park, often becoming the player who saw the ball more than any other. His passing was smooth, smart and silky.
His ability to control the middle was rivaled only by his shots from distance, which became a frequent feature of his game. He has multiple games with six shots taken, which is absolutely wild. He’s had even more with four shots taken. What’s more, though, is that those shots are almost always dangerous.
While Ruiz hasn’t been the player to turn Real Salt Lake around — no one player can do that on their own, I wager — he has proven himself to be a vital part of the lineup week-in, week-out. His return bodes well for the club’s future hopes, providing they can build around him.
For the first time in a long time, it looks like Real Salt Lake will have the opportunity to build around a young, exciting player in the midfield.