For a man of his experience, you would think that little would faze Steve Ralston. The league's all-time leader in minutes played has pretty much seen it all during his 11 years in MLS but, prior to his side's encounter with Chicago on Sunday afternoon, the New England Revolution captain was under pressure like never before.
You see, just hours earlier, Ralston's daughter had notched her first-ever goal on the soccer field. The gauntlet had been laid down and now it was up to dad to keep the family's day of achievement going.
Unsurprisingly, as he has throughout his career, Ralston Sr. answered the call in fine style, scoring once and assisting on two other goals as the Revs overcame the Fire 3-1 at Gillette Stadium. Ralston's assists came on a 16th-minute corner that was converted by Jeff Larentowicz and an 81st-minute pass to Adam Cristman that helped set up Wells Thompson for his first MLS goal.
"It was a great result; a big win for us against a conference rival," said Ralston. "It wasn't our best game but in the second half, we kind of sorted some things out and once we got the second goal, the game changed.
"It just shows the kind of team we are. At halftime we were talking about that we're tired (and) Stevie (Nicol) was saying 'you've got to use your brains and be mentally strong'. We did a great job in the second half. We have a great group of guys here and the guys that came off the bench gave us a big-time spark."
The key moment in the match came in the 66th minute when Nicol replaced Avery John and Andy Dorman with Joe Franchino and Thompson. The Revs, playing their third game in seven days, looked visibly tired and were being forced onto the back foot by a Fire side that seemed confident of picking up a road victory.
"I felt (Chicago) were on top," said Nicol. "We looked tired from halfway through the first half. We got some fresh legs on and it was just the spark we needed to get things going."
The switch saw Michael Parkhurst, until then playing in central midfield in place of the suspended Shalrie Joseph, revert back to central defense. Meanwhile, Ralston moved from his wide right position into a free role behind Taylor Twellman and Cristman.
"I love it," said Ralston of his central role. "It's a fun position and it's been a long time since I played there. It gives you the freedom to link up and there are more options than there are out wide."
Within three minutes, the alteration bore fruit when Ralston was able to sneak in ahead of Gonzalo Segares at the far post to score from close range following Khano Smith's excellent low cross.
"I really didn't think the ball was going to get there," said Ralston. "It was a great ball by Khano and it just got by everybody; I just tried to step in front of them and stuck my foot out. Luckily, I just steered it into the goal."
Though the finish was a straightforward one from all of four yards, what was most impressive was the speed of thought that enabled Ralston to find space. It was a subtle yet effective move that was not lost on his coach.
"(Ralston) is just a smart player," said Nicol. "He has a great soccer brain and he uses it. Sometimes the brain is faster than the legs."
The lead restored, New England grew in confidence and wrapped up their second win in as many games at Gillette Stadium this season with nine minutes left. Having taken Ralston's pass, Cristman's lay-off to Thompson left the rookie with much to do, but the former Wake Forest man responded impressively by poking the ball past Segares before lashing confidently past Matt Pickens.
The only thing that was not perfect about the goal was Thompson's rookie mistake that followed it, which saw the first-year man turn away to the stadium's empty side to celebrate. Nevertheless, the insurance goal was the perfect way to end not only a good day for the Revs, but a good week, which saw Nicol's men collect seven points out of a possible nine.
"We played three games and got seven points," said Nicol. "Today you saw the effects of the traveling and playing away but we showed character to get over that. There is plenty more to come from this team."
Andrew Hush is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.