HARRISON, N.J. - Ask any professional soccer player what it's like to represent his country and the words "honor" and "privilege" are sure to follow.
Carlos Ruiz said as much, and more last night, after he captained his native Guatemala to a 4-0 rout of Grenada before 25,0000 fans at Red Bull Arena in the final group match of the CONCACAF Gold Cup.
Ruiz, a forward for the Union, has been on national team duty since May 22, missing three league matches.
"It's everything to play for my national team; it's exciting to play for Guatemala," Ruiz said. "To try and make history with the national team, it's something very different than what I get playing in Philadelphia. To play with Philadelphia, it's nice, it's good and makes me very happy, but this [moment] means everything to me."
And why wouldn't it? While the jury is still in deliberation regarding Ruiz in Philadelphia, his superstar status has no boundaries in Guatemala. Every time he touched the ball last night, cheers resonated. And when he scored to put Guatemala up three in the 54th minute, the stadium erupted.
Many fans think Ruiz is the reason Guatemala secured a berth in this weekend's quarterfinals at either New Meadowlands Arena or RFK Stadium.
"He means everything in my country," said Estaban Cavallaro, a Rahway, N.J., resident but a Guatemala fan "since birth."
"He is a big part of our national team and he's the leader. There is a lot of pride knowing that he leads our national team."
But while playing for one's country may be important to the players, it's not always a desirable situation for their respective club teams. Currently, 30 Major League Soccer players are on international duty in the Gold Cup, and an additional five players are participating in various friendlies.
While the Union has only lost Ruiz, teams like Red Bull have lost five key players: Dane Richards (Jamaica), Dwayne De Rosario (Canada), Rafael Marquez (Mexico) and U.S. national teamers Tim Ream and Juan Agudelo. Real Salt Lake and Sporting Kansas City have four players missing.
There are a few cases, however, when playing for country isn't all it's cracked up to be. New England Revolution forward Shalrie Joseph declined the call-up by Grenada. In Colorado, Jamaican stalwarts Tyrone Marshall and Omar Cummings opted to miss the group stage and said they will join the team should it need assistance in the knockout stage. Jamaica has led Group B throughout qualifying.
"It's out there that a lot of managers ask MLS players to stay because of their fear of not having enough players available even with roster expansion," Union boss Peter Nowak said. "But scheduling for these games isn't always the best either. I mean, didn't U.S. Soccer schedule a match [against Argentina], 2 weeks into the MLS season? Come on."
FIFA, soccer's world governing body, schedules international matches a year ahead of time, and games often conflict with MLS.
The MLS plays opposite many of the world's professional leagues. That means summer international tournaments like the Gold Cup and July's Copa America are played in the meat of the MLS season that runs from March through October.
"We as managers complain, but it's just the way things are," said Nowak. "Scheduling would never be perfect. We are in a global sport and times never match up. The only good thing to come out of it is that if some of your players are missing, now you have the opportunity to test and give young players the chance to develop and gain experience that will only make them better over time."
Playing for country has to truly be an honor because, depending on the tournament, players aren't taking home much. In the Gold Cup, $1 million is dispersed to all teams by CONCACAF, with $200,000 going to the winning country. The runner-up gets $120,000, third and fourth place $90,000, fifth through eighth place $75,000, and ninth through 12th $50,000 . . . per team.
"In a competition like [the Gold Cup] it's not about money," said a CONCACAF official who wished to remain anonymous. "I can tell you these players and coaches aren't making that much. Perhaps a couple thousand per game? Depending on how far they evolve in the tournament, the incentive and bonuses get a little better, but still nothing you'd quit your day job for. It's more about competition than it is about making a fast-buck, believe me."
In the case of Ruiz, who is guaranteed $306,671 by the Union this season, the "peanuts" he'll collect for his contributions, pale to how he is regarded by the thousands who ventured to Red Bull Arena to watch him beat up on Grenada.
"As a player, how could you not love the feeling of wearing your country's jersey and the love of your fans?" Ruiz said. "I don't care about money, I love soccer."