Season 10: Ralston savors first year

guys who had been around for a long time who were leaders. I tried to take in as much from those guys. That year was kind of a blur to me because the team did so well. I was a young kid who was playing well. It went by so fast.

"It was a great experience. Still is my favorite year playing soccer."

Ralston felt he was fortunate to get the top rookie nod. Many of the other leading first-year players were training and playing on and off for the U.S. Olympic team, getting in the way of their MLS appearances.

"It was a great honor," he said. "It was the only time I could win that award. It was nice to be recognized. I had a pretty good season. I wasn't on the Olympic team and half the guys were away on the Olympic team for half a season. It could have been a little different. Some of those guys could have had great seasons as well.

Since Ralston received that inaugural honor, eight other players have earned the same award. Most are still playing, either in the league or overseas: Mike Duhaney (1997), Ben Olsen (1998), Jay Heaps (1999), Carlos Bocanegra (2000), Rodrigo Faria (2001), Kyle Martino (2002), Damani Ralph (2003) and Clint Dempsey (2004).

Ralston said Dempsey's star is on the rise.

"He's a tremendous player," Ralston said. "I think he caught us all by surprise on how good he was going to be. I think the coaches did a great job with him as far as grooming him along and letting him play. He's earned everything he's got. He's a great player. He has a bright future."

Ralston admitted he didn't know which rookies have stood out this season, but praised Revs first-year defender Michael Parkhurst, who has played in 14 games.

"He's done a great job," Ralston said. "He's never fazed. He's always the same. He's a smart player. It seems like he's always in the right place. He's just a smart player, makes good decisions and is good on the ball."

So, what sort of advice would Ralston have for today's rookies?

"Just enjoy it and be themselves and play the game as they normally would," he said. "Obviously, they've got to understand that other players and coaches will tell them things. Just absorb and try to take everything in. But just remember it's a game and you're here for a reason because you're good enough to be here.

"That's what Clint did last year. He went out and played and just had fun and did a great job. Too many times guys would come in and you could tell that they're a little bit nervous. But just go out and play. It sounds so simple, but it's the reality of it."

Ralston, who turned 31 on June 14, has seen it all in MLS -- the good, bad and ugly.

He suffered a personal low when the Mutiny went out of business as the league contracted before the 2002 season. He was picked by the Revs in the dispersal draft. By then, Ralston had forged a reputation as an accomplisher crosser and passer. He led the league assists with the Mutiny in 1999 (18) and the Revs in 2002 (19).

He felt the league has changed in three ways -- stadiums, the emergence of younger U.S. players and fewer foreign stars.

"Before we always had big football stadiums," he said. "Now we have more soccer-specific stadiums. That is the biggest effect I can think of.

"The American player is entering the league at a young age. When I came into the league I was Rookie of the Year. I was 21 years old. Now you've got 16-, 17- and 18-year-old guys who are making impact.

"Thirdly, there are not as many big-name foreigners as was in the first year when you had Valderrama, (Marco) Etcheverry and (Roberto) Donadoni and all these guys. I think they're going towards younger foreigners whereas in the early years we were trying to get the big names and get people interested."

Ralston still has two personal goals left -- to win an MLS Cup and play in the World Cup.

The Revs went to the 2002 Final, but lost to the Los Angeles Galaxy 1-0. This year they've bolted to one of the best starts in league history. There is still a long way to go, but the Revs are among the early favorites to reach MLS Cup at Pizza Hut Park in Frisco, Texas on Nov. 13.

"This is as good a team as I've ever played for in MLS," Ralston said. "The team that we have, the firepower - the guys on top scoring goals - the midfield. We're a pretty deep team, well-coached, well-organized. This is the best we've been playing since I've here. I hope this is the year, definitely."

Ralston's national team career also has been revived as he has been called into the team for qualifiers. In the 2-0 victory against Guatemala on March 30, he scored his first qualifying goal. He also is on the U.S. roster for the CONCACAF Gold Cup, which runs from July 6-24.

"It's been a long process to get to the national team and be a part of qualifying," Ralston said, "and hopefully be a part of next summer. I feel like that this is my last go-around and I want to be a part of it. I'm getting a second or third chance to make the national team. I'm trying to make the best of it."

Which is something Ralston has been doing and then some for 10 MLS seasons.

Michael Lewis writes about soccer for the New York Daily News and is editor of BigAppleSoccer.com. He has covered MLS since its inception. He can be reached at SoccerWriter516@aol.com. Views and opinions expressed in this column are the author's, and not necessarily those of Major League Soccer or MLSnet.com.


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