The Invisible Man

all gangly legs and Richie Cunningham babyface -- I remember Thomas muttering in his thick Dutch grumble about "damn young American players" and "respect for the game."

Then we did the fitness test. As luck would have it, I was in Steve's group. He crushed me. He crushed all of us. He was in better shape than anyone on the field, perhaps anyone in the greater Tampa Bay area. The kid had iron lungs and legs that pumped nonstop. I felt like I was running with Forrest Gump. Later, when we got into small-sided games, we saw that he also had skills, creativity and intelligence, enough to earn a starting spot on that great Mutiny team.

"What a great first year he had," Thomas recalls, speaking from his home in Virginia. "He was smart enough to figure it out: Give the ball to [then-Tampa teammate] Carlos Valderrama, and sooner or later you'll get it back in a better position."

Ah, Valderrama. It's impossible for me to utter Steve Ralston's name without thinking of Carlos Valderrama. The two clicked better than Axl and Slash, and at some point someone dubbed Steve "El Stevie," echoing Valderrama's own nickname, "El Pibe" ("The Kid"). Their chemistry was scary and thrilling -- this clean-cut rookie from the St. Louis suburbs executing perfect give-and-gos with this stoic lion-maned veteran from the streets of Santa Marta, Colombia. It made you think that, yes, soccer/futbol is a universal language.

El Stevie has been speaking that language ever since. Over eight seasons, he's forged one of the league's best careers: 1996 Rookie of the Year, named to the Best XI three times, an average of five goals and 11 assists per season. Now playing on the right side of midfield for the team he debuted against in 1996, the New England Revolution, he is the MLS career leader in minutes played -- though that distinction doesn't much float his boat. "I don't know, it's kind of like being the career leader in blocks or some other silly statistic," he says.

Maybe so, but to a schmuck like me whose MLS career spanned a grand total of 100 minutes, Steve's 20,000-plus career minutes is quite an accomplishment.

What's amazing is how little any of us really know about the iron man. Think about it: We've watched Steve transform from a mercurial 21-year-old whiz kid into a day-in, day-out "good professional," but what do we really know? Not much. By comparison, Freddy Adu has played a whopping 29 minutes of pro ball, and we know more about him than we want to, such as the fact that he doesn't like doing dishes. (As if household chores might hold an insight into his skills.) It seems no matter how many swerving crosses Steve delivers or how many graceful runs he makes down the right flank for the Revs, he will always be an invisible man.

Which is just fine with him. "I like my privacy," Steve says. "Attention has its ups and downs. If you have a mohawk, you're going to get more attention. Just don't go overboard, and never disrespect the game. It's a team game. To me, if you do well, you're going to get recognized."

Part of the explanation is that Steve has failed to make his mark with the national team, though he boasts 15 caps. He is fully aware of the criticism and vows to rebut it. "I wish I'd had more success," he admits. "In years past, maybe I was intimidated. Last year, though, I think I did a little better."

His timing couldn't be any better. The U.S. national team starts World Cup qualifying this summer, and the right midfield position is wide open following the departures of Earnie Stewart and Cobi Jones. It starts with this year's MLS campaign.

"Perhaps, Stevie is the best right-sided midfielder in the league all-time," Rongen says. "Most guys hit a wall. Stevie never really did. His consistency -- not only during a season, but over the past 8 years -- is his greatest asset. That's like gold for coaches."

If you've read my double-entendre-laden column a couple of weeks ago, you know how I feel about consistency or staying power: Most American players don't have it. Steve Ralston does.

Consistency isn't sexy, though. Consistency doesn't get headlines. But it can certainly help a team win an MLS Cup someday. "I want to get a ring," Steve says. "As you get a little older, that becomes a bigger priority."

See? How scary is it that little Stevie is talking about getting older? It means I'm really getting older. Ugh.

Don't worry, Steve's not about to retire anytime soon. Pushing 30 just has a way of making you take stock. When it is finally over for Steve, he plans to spend even more time with wife Rachel and their 2-year-old daughter Anna. And whenever he gets a little free time, he'll go fishing. In fact, Steve does a lot of fishing already. He even owns a bass boat (whatever that is) and fishes all over the country. I told him I never go fishing. I think he nearly cried out of pity.

He also likes to hunt. "I'm a redneck now," he says, chuckling. Last deer season, he bagged a 9-point buck with his bow-and-arrow.

Wait ... redneck, deer hunting, bow-and-arrow ... Ted Nugent!

"Nuge is my boy!" Steve exclaims. "I love the Nuge!"

Take that, all you Freddy-heads. Now, after all these years, we know a little something about what lurks in Steve Ralston's heart: He loves the Nuge. Oh yeah, he loves the Nuge.