By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 14, 2007
When Steve Ralston's MLS career began, every match was played in an oversize football stadium and club nicknames ranged from the silly (Clash) to the absurd (Wiz). To the dismay of soccer traditionalists, ties were broken by shootouts and official time was kept on -- gasp! -- a scoreboard. Playing styles were decidedly unrefined and the definition of a young player was someone just out of college.
Nearly 12 years have passed and almost everything about the league has changed. Most teams play in mid-size stadiums built with true soccer dimensions, and some monikers have a conventional F.C. (Football Club) attached before or after the city name. Ties are ties, the referee keeps the time on his watch and rosters have players born in the '90s.
Ralston has watched it all unfold, and on Sunday at RFK Stadium, he hopes to finally win an MLS championship on the same day that he makes U.S. soccer history.
When he steps onto the field with his New England Revolution teammates to face the defending champion Houston Dynamo in MLS Cup, Ralston will set a U.S. record for games played in first-division soccer. He is tied with Bill McPherson, who appeared in 370 American Soccer League matches (regular season and playoffs) in the 1920s and '30s, mostly with the Fall River (Mass.) Marksmen.
"Honestly, I did not know about the record until a couple weeks ago, but looking back at everything, it's an honor," Ralston said. "Time has gone by quickly."
Since being selected by the defunct Tampa Bay Mutiny in the inaugural 1996 college draft, Ralston has appeared in at least 25 regular season matches every year except 2005 (21). He has logged 29,885 minutes and, with a league-high 14 assists this year, became MLS's all-time leader with 121.
Ralston, 33, is among seven players to have played every season since the league's launch, but the only one without a championship ring. Not that Ralston hasn't had opportunities. The Revolution has lost in the title game three of the previous five years, all in either overtime or a penalty kick tiebreaker.
"We've always gone into the final with confidence, expecting to win, but unfortunately we haven't gotten the results," said Ralston, a midfielder who was acquired by the Revolution in 2002 when the Mutiny folded. "We won the [U.S.] Open Cup this year so we know what it takes. We've got that feeling and we feel like we can win [MLS Cup] this time."
Ralston's career has been marked by overachievement and classy play. He did not start on his high school team in St. Louis, attended junior college for a year before transferring to Florida International University and was chosen near the end of the second round of a three-round draft in 1996.
U.S. players had been without a full-blown domestic league since the demise of the North American Soccer League 12 years earlier, but with the start of MLS after Ralston's senior season, "I was fortunate," he said. "Without the beginning of MLS, I might have tried to play indoor back in St. Louis or gone out and found a normal job."
Ralston was an instant success at Tampa Bay and was named MLS's rookie of the year after collecting seven goals and two assists. He soon established himself as one of the top right-side midfielders in the league and, between 1999 and 2002, accumulated 60 assists.
While his scoring totals have climbed, his infractions remain low. He has received just 17 yellow cards and one red card in 337 regular season appearances, committed an average of 21 fouls per season and is a two-time recipient of the league's Fair Play award.
Speaking to Ralston's longevity, Revolution Coach Steve Nicol said: "It's his brain. He's obviously been a great pro, but to play at such a high level, you have to have a good soccer brain. The longer you play, your brain takes over for your legs. As you get older, you have to make smart decisions and not rely so much on your body. That's what Steve has done."
Ralston's reliability prompted Nicol to move Ralston into the critical playmaking role late in the season and insert impressive rookie Wells Thompson onto the right side of midfield. It is a position that Ralston has not often filled since college, but after appearing elsewhere in midfield and on the back line over his career, Ralston embraced his new responsibility.
"We always knew he could play there," Nicol said, "but the timing wasn't right. He's done well."
Regardless of Sunday's outcome, Ralston said he fully expects to return next season. And with Eddie Pope, Cobi Jones and Chris Armas retiring this winter and the status of Jesse Marsch and Jaime Moreno uncertain, he and Chivas USA forward Ante Razov could be the only MLS originals remaining.
"I really had no long-term goals," Ralston said, reflecting on his first year in MLS. "I just wanted to make sure I made the team and then once I did that, I just wanted to make the starting lineup. It just kind of progressed from there."