Last Saturday night Steve Ralston's 2009 season came to a crashing halt. An anterior cruciate ligament tear after landing awkwardly put Ralston on the sidelines with the most important part of the season right around the corner.
The loss of their captain will be huge for the New England Revolution. Their struggles in front of goal compound when 'Rally' is not in on the pitch pulling the strings. But the loss could be even greater if one of Major League Soccer's all time greats never returns to the game.
Though no word has come out of New England, or from Ralston, about the possibility of retiring, one can only imagine that if indeed he does return after reconstructive surgery he very well may never return to the form that has made him one of the great players in MLS history.
But what is the legacy of Steve Ralston?
Being an MLS player who never quite made it in Europe carries a certain negative stigma with it, and Ralston will likely never be given his rightful due as one of the best midfielders this country has ever produced.
Had he become a star with the U.S. National Team his image may have been different, but Ralston was already in his 30's when he had a banner year with Bruce Arena's 2005 team, and despite 35 caps over an 11 year span Rally never made it to soccer's biggest stage, the World Cup.
Even when talking about the Revolution over the past half decade,
Ralston was largely considered a very good complimentary, but rarely
mentioned as one of the stars. Most people never mention his name when
talking about the elite in Major League Soccer. And when his time is
over, it's questionable that anybody will remember Steve Ralston as an
all time great (at least by U.S. standards). I think that is a travesty.
With that in mind I give you this week's list: Five Reasons U.S. Soccer Fans Should Remember Steve Ralston As One Of The Best.
You would be hard pressed to point to a more consistent player than Ralston. Over the course of his career he has amassed numbers that will be hard for any player to top. His MLS record marks include every major longevity record (games played, games started, minutes played,) as well as records for assists and game winning assists.
The records prove that not only does Ralston show up for work, but he does his job well. In an age where flash and flamboyance captures the imagination, you'll often find that the style outweighs the substance by a good bit. With Ralston, the substance is always there, even if you never saw the flash.
Man Of Many Talents:
The one thing people do give Ralston credit for is being a very good
winger, and there isn't much argument that he was as good in the wide
areas as just about anyone MLS has ever seen. But that does not give
credit for the other things that Ralston has done over the years.
In the last five years few teams in MLS have lost more talent, be it to transfers or injuries, than the Revolution. With players like Clint Dempsey, Taylor Twellman, Andy Doorman, Michael Parkhurst, Chris Albright, and Pat Noonan having all either left the club or missed substantial amounts of time over the last two season, Ralston has been called upon to fill the gaps.
After spending most of his career on the flank, Ralston was moved into the middle of the pitch last season. He shined in his new position, leading the team in scoring and assists. This year, playing at times as a forward, at times as an attacking mid, occasionally on the wing, and even sparingly as a defensive mid and fullback, Ralston has once again proven that he can do the job, whatever it may be.
There have been times when Ralston would've had every right to speak out. When he was left off the 2006 World Cup team for example, or when his team lost its third final on the hop. But through all of the ups and downs Ralston has shown his class.
Even last season, when a challenge from Herculez Gomez ended his season early and was condemned by teammates, Ralston took the high road.
Teammates all speak extremely highly of Ralston, as does everyone I know that has ever met the man. While being a good teammate and a good person is certainly not a requirement for great players, it never hurts.
The assist records should speak for themselves, but it must still be noted that, bar none, Ralston's vision is as good as anyone who has ever played in MLS. (And yes, I include Mr. Beckham and Mr. Schelotto in that statement.)
Of course it helped his stats to have guys like Twellman and Dempsey to serve balls to for long stretches, but it's a rare sight to see a Ralston pass go astray.
Since moving to the middle of the pitch, Raston has shown even more of his talents, constantly finding the right ball to open up a defense. His ability to read the game, to see how a play will unfold before it happens and pounce in time to make a play, is uncanny.
Ralston is reliable, plain and simple. No matter how big the game, or how tough the task, you can count of Ralston getting the job done.
It's telling that earlier this year, with the Revs leading a match, and rookie defender Kevin Alston carrying a knock, that Ralston was mover from forward to fullback to help secure the win.
Along with Shalrie Joseph, Ralston has formed one of the best one-two combos in Major League Soccer, and while Joseph is the more dynamic player, Ralston is arguably more reliable. While his Grenadian partner has a tendency to get worked up, sometimes to the detriment of the team, Ralston rarely shows negative emotion on the field and can be counted on to help cooler heads prevail.
Technical And Tactical Ability:
If you've ever watched Ralston play, you've noticed a few things about
him. First, he's not all that big and he doesn't rely on his size to
push people off the ball. Second, he's not all that fast. Third, he
doesn't dazzle with his foot-skills.
Yet if you have watched Rally play for any length of time you've also noticed that he rarely loses out on 50/50 balls, he's usually fast enough to beat his man to the touchline, and his skills with the ball at his feet are deceptive enough to make most defenders miss. So what gives?
Ralston is technically sound in every aspect of the game. His passes are crisp, his moves calculated, and his understanding of the game is almost unmatched in MLS, and has been for a while.
This is not to say that Ralston is not naturally gifted, but he is proof that in soccer, a well drilled player who understands the game is a more valuable comity than a physical freak who doesn't have the technique.
Allen Ramsey is an associate editor of Goal.com. The Short List runs every Wednesday on Goal.com USA.
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