DREW RUGGLES: STUDENT OF THE GAME
No doubt that Drew Ruggles is a student of the game.
When he isn't training, preparing for or performing in a Major Arena Soccer League game, there is a good chance that the Florida Tropics defender is watching a streaming match live. Sometimes, he has multiple contests on his devices at the same time.
"I watch as often as I can," he said. "It's really nice to have YouTube once again to being able to go back and watch them. I do tend to find myself watching more our Eastern side games for the obvious reasons, but it's fun to keep an eye on what's going on the west coast.
"Now that I've played a little bit longer in the league, I've got friends on different teams. So, it's always fun to watch those guys score goals or lose when we need them to, whatever the case is. I watch them as often as I can. If you ask the missus, she'll testify. Late nights usually consist of the laptop, the TV and the iPad out."
Which is one of the reasons why the 27-year-old Ruggles has become one of the best defenders in the league. In fact, combined with his skill, vision and experience, he has become a lethal player on both sides of the ball.
Now, that was no news to Tropics head coach Clay Roberts, who knew what Ruggles brought to the table after watching him stand out for the 2018-19 champion Milwaukee Wave and why he pursued him as a free agent prior to this season.
"He was one of our big targets in the offseason," Roberts said. "We wanted to add a top defender that could be a staple on the defensive side, be a leader and also contribute offensively. Drew has done a fantastic job of establishing his job in that order, establishing helping the defensive effort we've had this year."
Before the Coronavirus outbreak cut short the rest of the MASL regular season, the Tropics had conceded only 86 goals, the least in the league and 10 less than its nearest competitor, the Wave.
"He's a great vocal leader and a great organizer in the back," Roberts continued. "On the offensive element, he has been a fantastic player for our team that just helps control the rhythm of the game, helps us break pressure getting out of the back. As you can see, he has 14 goals. He has the ability to get forward and produce goals, which is fantastic. He's kind of lived up to every expectation we had of him."
After helping Milwaukee to its long-sought seventh title, the 6-foot, 164-lb. Ruggles became a free agent in the offseason. He was seeking a new challenge. With the Tropics looking to turn their fortunes around and bulk up with other free-agent signings, it looked like a perfect fit for him.
"For a long time, playing with the guys in Milwaukee, it was win a championship, win a championship, win a championship," he said. "That was the mentality the whole time I was there. We worked so hard towards that once we achieved it, what's a new challenge for me as well? I had given four years of my career to this team. Not only that, but it was topped with a championship. which is the reason why we all play. It just so happened that I was going to be a free agent."
Ruggles took a step back and saw what his options were. One of his goals was "to establish myself as a player in the league, not just as a player on the Wave."
"Conversations with Clay Roberts and a couple of guys who already had signed, who I was friends with and was talking to at the time, it seemed like it was a real fun project," he said. "It wasn't something that was brand new. They already had a good base. Having played against them I knew their strengths and weaknesses and I thought definitely with the guys they had already signed and some of the names they were talking about bringing in I knew that a lot of the guys we were going to have this season, if everything panned out, were going to be guys who were in their prime, transitioning from that two and half, three year rookie slump for some guys to veterans of the league, some more experienced guys. But also on the younger side, too. It seemed to be a pretty cool project to be a part of."
Given his propensity to watch other teams' games, Ruggles has studied his foes -- the man he must mark and of course, the opposing teams as well. In the early years of his career, he got into the habit of watching as much video as he could, especially of opposing forwards.
"I studied players, tendencies, stuff like that," he said. "I think that when it comes to their individual strengths, as a team that's something that we prepare for. If a target is right footed, you're going to tend to push them to the opposite side to just to keep their uncomfortable from rolling to their comfortable foot. As a defender when you do match up against those top players, everybody says that you can do this, this and this. Well, I think I can do this, this and this. So, let’s see how it matches up."
A lot of it comes down to confidence.
"So, I don't think it's so much adjusting to their tendencies as believing in myself as a defender, respecting their game and realizes they are really good players, but also trusting my own abilities," Ruggles said. "I've been doing this for a while now and I've gotten to the point where I am for a reason. It's being confident in that role. handing someone like that, it's either sink or swim come game time. You've got to step up."
That would go double, triple or quadruple against the top strikers in the league. It seems every team has a special player who can fill the net if he is not marked properly.
"My goal is that my man doesn't score and if it just so happens to be one of the biggest names in the league, Nick Perera, Franck Tayou, Ian Bennett, it's one of the things as a defender that you take personally," Ruggles said. "It's like everyone says you are this great player. Well, let's put it to the test. Let's see. Let's battle it out. That’s the competitive side."
On the other side of the ball, Ruggles has been a force with the Tropics, scoring 14 goals and setting up seven others. After taking care of his top priority and keeping the opposition off the scoreboard, he is ready to add to his team's total.
It certainly has helped that the Tropics have such an impressive attacking force behind the likes of Ricardo Carvalho, Zach Reget and Victor Parreiras, according to Ruggles.
“It's just a product of the amount of weapons we have in the attack just between our midfield, second forward and target," he said. "So, as a defender it is just recognizing the game and realizing the moments where you can go forward and take those chances, just being confident that you're going to be able to finish those. A lot of defenders don't get those chances and so they don't expect to be in those spots and don't expect to finish."
Roberts called Ruggles "a huge bonus."
"Even going back when I played in Philadelphia, we had a similar type player in Pat Morris, who won championships in Philadelphia and Baltimore and was a big attacking defender," he added. "Drew Ruggles is very similar, has the same qualities, has great leadership qualities and pushes the group. Kind of sets the tone defensively as well. that balance, the ability to get forward it's crucial in the indoor game and has helped us to a lot of our success this year."
Florida finished the regular season atop the Eastern Division with an 18-3 mark.
Born in Fayetteville, N.C. Ruggles came from a soccer family. His brother and sister played the game.
"It was kind of a family thing," he said. "I'm the youngest of three and both of my older siblings played. My brother ended up playing in D3 at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia. It was just kind of a natural thing for me. I grew up with a soccer ball on the sideline going to his games. Going to my sister's games. My dad.... Funny enough, all of us, when I turned 18, I actually played in a coed league. So it's kind of a family sport. It's been there ever since and fell in love with it."
There have been so many reasons for his love affair.
"I'm really competitive when it comes to sports or anything you can do as a challenge," he said. "So I think that naturally sports would have been a go-to and where I probably would have been most successful. But I think it's more so the freedom side, the artful [side] you can say, of playing soccer that really attracts me. It's not a set play every time. There's not a lot of breaks. There's a lot of fluid movement and you have to be able to adjust and you have to be thinking the whole time. And, it requires not just being physically gifted. You have to have both sides of the mental and physical side of the game. That was something that challenged me more.
"I've played basketball and I've played football. Basketball almost had me a little bit. but every day afterwards, going from basketball practice to soccer practice, it was a release almost. Finally, I could do what I want. If I see that the defense is open, I can do a stepover and push by and make a play as opposed by keeping getting yelled at by the coach for not setting up a pick. It was that creative side of the game that really drew me in and stuck with me. Still to this day I love to be creative, I love to be on the goal and getting touches."
While it is difficult to find defenders among the top statistical categories given the nature of their jobs, Ruggles finished tied with the Dallas Sidekicks' Ricardinho Cavalcante for the most penalty minutes this season. with 33 each.
In contrast, entering this season Ruggles had 38 penalty minutes in 59 matches over the previous three seasons with Milwaukee.
"It's not something that I look forward to happening or have any intent in doing," he said. "What it boils down to is that I am very passionate, especially on the soccer field and sometimes that might come across a little bit aggressive. That passion might get mistaken by some people. I think a few of those cards were maybe a little bit iffy calls. The blue card and stuff like that is a natural part of the game as a defender, especially a target defender. You find yourself in a position a lot of times where you either have to make the play to stop the guy from scoring or stop the pass from happening. It leads to some sticky situations.
"This year we've had a great man-down team, So some situations it's wise to take the blue card and take the two-minute penalty and have our man down unit come on and kill as opposed to let the team walk in and get momentum or a game-changing goal. Some of them were tactical, just standard blue card fouls. Some of the yellow cards, maybe I was talking a little bit much. ... Unfortunately, it did take me out of a game this year. It's something that I can control as a player. It's a little bit upsetting."
But there was nothing upsetting about Drew Ruggles' overall performance this season.