The Chicago Fire announced Thursday that forward Damani Ralph has signed a new contract with Major League Soccer that will keep him as a member of the Fire for years to come. Per MLS policy, details of the agreement were not disclosed.
"I'm very excited to re-sign with Major League Soccer and the Fire," said the 23-year-old Ralph. "Last season was an amazing year, not only for me, but for the entire team. We won almost everything, and I'm happy to be back with this talented group of players. [Fire general manager] Peter Wilt and [head coach] Dave Sarachan have also been wonderful to me, and I'm thankful for their support. I enjoy playing in Chicago in front of such great fans. I hope we can do even better things this year. Our goal is to get back to MLS Cup and win it."
After earning NSCAA Second Team All-American and BIG EAST Offensive Player of the Year honors during his senior season at the University of Connecticut in 2002, the Fire selected Ralph in the third round (24th overall) of the 2003 MLS SuperDraft. The Kingston, Jamaica native would start his rookie season on the bench, but was called upon in May to fill the starting forward spot left vacant by Brazilian striker Rodrigo Faria. Ralph would quickly step into the league spotlight, as his rare blend of power and speed surprised MLS defenders and provided him ample opportunity to create MLS history.
"We're extremely pleased that Damani has re-signed with the Fire," said Sarachan. "We feel that we have one of the most promising young forwards in Major League Soccer in Damani. He is a very talented, hard-working player, and knowing that he will be a part of our group for years to come is very exciting."
During his rookie season, Ralph scored an MLS rookie record 11 goals and added six assists -- both good for second on the team -- for 28 points, giving him the highest point total among MLS rookies in 2003 and the fifth highest single-season point total in Fire history. Ralph also found himself rewriting the MLS record books alongside forward Ante Razov, as the duo combined to set the league record for most consecutive games in which a pair of teammates tallied a goal after they each hit the back of the net in four straight games during a torrid stretch in June.
Ralph also displayed a taste for heroics, scoring six eventual game-winning goals in MLS and Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup play, including the lone goal in Chicago's 1-0 victory over the MetroStars on Oct. 15, that gave the Fire its third U.S. Open Cup title. Ralph combined his flair for dramatics and his ability to finish against the Columbus Crew on Aug. 23, when he connected on a spinning volley in the 90th minute that not only tied the match but also gave him the MLS rookie goal-scoring record. The play earned Ralph the Pepsi MLS Goal of the Year.
"Damani has earned this new agreement with his hard work and his contributions to the Chicago Fire," said Wilt. "Damani is a talented, young player. We are happy to reward him for his efforts and we are extremely pleased that he chose to extend his commitment to the Fire."
Ralph's performance last season drew much attention from the Jamaica Football Federation and he has earned four caps with the Jamaican National Team. He is expected to compete for a starting spot on the "Reggae Boyz" roster as the team embarks on its campaign to qualify for the 2006 World Cup in Germany when CONCACAF qualifying begins for Jamaica in June.