It’s a hot, Friday afternoon in late June and Raul Ruidiaz is starving.
“As soon as we’re done talking I’m heading over to a local Peruvian spot here in Seattle,” he says laughing.
The 27-year-old arrived in the Pacific Northwest directly from Russia, days after Peru ended its World Cup campaign, and he’s been doing the rounds, talking to the media as he’s officially introduced to the Sounders faithful. His excitement in coming to a new league is obvious, but right now all he wants to talk about is where to eat.
“I actually know the city and all the good spots, because this is where our first base was back in 2016 (for Copa America Centenario), so we looked around on our day off. It’s the first thing we do when we arrive in a new city.”
Food before business–yes, he's definitely Peruvian. But his hunger extends beyond the dining table and to the field, too.
In his two years in Liga MX with Monarcas Morelia, the striker won several individual accolades. He was the league’s top scorer in the 2016 Apertura and 2017 Clausura and scored an impressive 41 goals in all competitions. The 5-foot-7 forward moves to MLS as Seattle’s newest Designated Player (for a reported $7 million transfer fee), ready to show the league what he’s made of. When the secondary transfer window opens on Tuesday, Ruidiaz will be eligible to don the Rave Green. His first potential match comes on a big stage: at Atlanta United's Mercedes-Benz Stadium against the league's top team.
“This is a league that’s both tactically growing and expanding across the nation,” he says. “So I’ve been paying attention to it for a while and as a player that’s exactly what I want to do. I want to grow and evolve.”
Most of his education about MLS comes from talking to and witnessing the experiences of other compatriots such as Andy Polo (Portland Timbers), Alexander Callens (NYCFC) and Yordy Reyna (Vancouver Whitecaps), but it’s the conversations he had this past year with Orlando City’s Yoshimar Yotun that really moved the needle.
“I talk to Yoshi a lot, and he’s been educating me so much on the league," Ruidiaz said. "Thanks to our conversations I know that physically it’s a different league to any other, but the key is to adapt, and if I am able to adapt, then I can succeed.”
Born and raised in Lima, Ruidiaz started his career with Universitario de Deportes (La Ú), one of the most successful teams in Peru, which has won 26 division titles and also possesses one of the most passionate fan bases in South America. For him, the relationship between fans and their respective teams was another factor why MLS–and especially Seattle–seemed appealing.
“Luckily, I am aware of the passionate Sounders fans," Ruidiaz said. "The stadium is always full, and they get behind the team at every opportunity. I see a great relationship between the fans and the team, and that’s a big reason I’m here, really. To create more good times for them.”
Ruidiaz's summer in Russia with the national team was a memory he will never forget, even if he was reduced to a late substitute role, playing five minutes against Denmark and eight against France in a pair of tight 1-0 losses.
“Being at the World Cup was honestly insane. Insane. It felt as we were in Peru because there were so many Peruvians,” he says with excitement and a tone of nostalgia. “It was the greatest experience of my life, and to be part of it was simply incredible, because I’ve been dreaming about this since I was a kid. And the fact that I achieved it, I can’t even…I can’t really put it into words.”
Peru didn’t get the results it wanted, but it left the tournament gaining much admiration, not just because of the emotion that came with performing in the big stage for the first time in 36 years, but mainly because of how Ricardo Gareca’s squad performed against its opponents.
“We played some excellent, excellent stuff,” says Ruidiaz. “But sadly we couldn’t get the points we needed to get out of the group. But that’s fútbol and that’s how things happen. In this game, the result doesn’t necessarily indicate how you play. But that’s the past now, because the present is about building from what we did. We have a platform where we can play against anyone.” He pauses and then stresses, “anyone.”
As the nation waits to see if Ricardo Gareca will continue to coach the national team or take another job, Ruidiaz takes a moment to thank the Argentine manager.
“I’m sure I’m not the only player or Peruvian who has told you this, but he is not only a magnificent coach, he is an amazing person. As a coach he changed our mentality and gave us a winning, confident way of thinking. He believed in each and every one of us but even more so he made us believe in ourselves.” He pauses again.
“He’s the greatest manager I have ever worked for.”
The World Cup and his experience with the national team was also a bolt of motivational lightning for Ruidiaz. Despite not playing many minutes due to his backup role behind Paolo Guerrero and Jefferson Farfán, he wants to use the tournament as a catalyst to improve and gain a larger role.
“I see next year’s Copa America as my main focus from a national team perspective. I want to be in great condition and stay at a high level and be ready for next summer.”
As for Seattle, which is coming off of two straight MLS Cup finals appearances but is currently out of playoff contention and has the worst offensive record in the league (15 goals scored in 17 matches; or 0.88 per game), Ruidiaz’s arrival could not come at a better time.
Nicknamed La Pulga (yes, just like Lionel Messi) Ruidiaz is more than meets the eye. He is a poacher with tremendous pace and acceleration, and despite his height, he is very good in the air. His work rate is also impressive, with his need to win the ball back after losing possession something not always commonly found in strikers.
When asked about it feels like to play in a league with stars such as Zlatan Ibrahimovic, David Villa, Carlos Vela and the newly signed Wayne Rooney, Ruidiaz almost dismisses the question. Instead he smiles and politely replies, “I am aware of the great talent and starpower in this league, but, honestly, I’m just itching to get started and show everyone what my game is all about. What I can offer.”
The off-field hunger has taken over again, and it’s time to end our conversation and for Ruidiaz to find a Peruvian restaurant. Aji de Gallina or even a Tacu-Tacu may be on the menu. It’s all the same to him, he’s just happy to know he can find more Peruvians in his new city.
“I’m so thankful to know that our people are everywhere, and now, there’s one more.”