Talk about a ground floor. That is where New England Revolution midfielder Steve Ralston began in Major League Soccer.
Ralston is one of 16 players in MLS who have been in the league since its 1996 inception. Ralston finished playing college soccer in 1995 at Florida International University and was drafted the following year by the Tampa Bay Mutiny.
And of those players, Ralston has played the most minutes, 24,865 to be exact, making him the league's ironman. This season, Ralston played and started in 21 of New England's 32 games, but played 15 more for the U.S. national team. That pushed him past the number of games, and minutes, that someone who played every minute of every MLS regular season game for the team would play.
"Right now I think my body needs a break, really, after so many games I've had this season," Ralston said.
After the Revolution's Thursday afternoon training session at Pizza Hut Park, the evidence of Ralston's physical condition were the packs of ice taped to his left hamstring and right ankle. The hamstring injury, suffered in training the week before New England's victory Sunday against Chicago in the Eastern Conference Championship, limited Ralston to 68 minutes against the Fire.
Ralston said he would be able to play Sunday against Los Angeles in the MLS Cup Final at Pizza Hut Park.
"Each day it has gotten a little better," Ralston said. "(On Friday) I will be able to go through regular training."
Ralston is keenly aware of the number of opportunities players get to win league championships and he is getting a second chance. The Revolution and Galaxy clashed in MLS Cup 2002, won by Los Angeles in extra time.
Avenging that loss is not as important to Ralston as just winning Sunday. This is all about a second chance.
"There are only a couple of guys from each team from that game," Ralston said. "I'm running out of years to win a cup. I feel like this is the best team I've ever played on."
Ralston's 10 years in MLS seem like a blur when he reflects on them.
"It goes by too fast. Honestly it feels like yesterday, it was my first year in the league and now it it's 10 years," Ralston said. "It's gone by way too fast."
Ralston's message for his teammates is simple.
"The guys have to realize that I've been here 10 years and this is only my second chance of winning something," Ralston said. "You never know. This could be a lot of these guys' last chance to win MLS Cup so we have to make the best of the opportunity."
Major League Soccer has evolved since Ralston was named the league's Rookie of the Year in 1996, just as Ralston's role on his team has evolved. In Ralston's first year in MLS, he played with Carlos Valderrama, a midfield maestro who orchestrated the Mutiny attack. Ralston scored seven goals and assisted on two others.
Dishing out assists was Valderrama's job.
"It was a great situation for me and other young guys having (coach Thomas Rongen) there and all those other guys there to take me under their wing," Ralston said. "There was not a whole lot expected of me so I surprised a lot of people, I guess."
Now Ralston is the elder statesman for the Revolution. And he dishes out a few assists, 100 since his rookie season.
Ralston said he has seen three major changes in MLS since he came into the league: the development of soccer-specific stadiums, fewer big-name international players (such as Valderrama) and the development of better young U.S. players at an earlier age.
"I was fortunate to have Carlos Valderrama play with me and I learned a lot from him," Ralston said. "He brings a lot of people to the games. People want to come see him play. So I think maybe we do miss it a bit."
Ralston also believes young U.S. players coming into MLS and trying to prove themselves, even if they end up playing abroad, is good for American soccer.
"Back in '96, I was 21, almost 22 years old, where now you have 16- and 17-year-old players starting and making an impact on their team," Ralston said. "There was nobody like that back then. The biggest thing for me is the young American player is becoming better at an earlier age."
Ralston said there used to be six or seven good players on every MLS team.
"Now, all 11 guys on every team are quality players and you don't find any weak links where you try and expose somebody," Ralston said.
Robert Whitman is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.