FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – When Steve Ralston fell to the Gillette Stadium turf clutching his right knee 21 minutes into a match against Seattle Sounders FC last September, the entire New England Revolution fan-base collectively held its breath.
Ralston landed awkwardly after an aerial challenge with Sounders midfielder Osvaldo Alonso, and it was apparent from the moment he went down that it was not a run-of-the-mill sprain. Limping off the field with the help of the athletic training staff, the anguish in Ralston’s face was evident, and the Revolution faithful instantly began to fear the worst.
At 35 years old and with an expiring contract, New England supporters were left wondering if this was the last time they would ever see Ralston wearing the uniform of their beloved hometown team, the club he had dutifully represented for eight seasons. As Major League Soccer’s all-time leader in appearances and assists – among other records – this was not the way Ralston’s illustrious career was supposed to end.
“I had those same thoughts, too,” said Ralston. “When I went off that field, that was in the back of my mind, as well – ‘This is how my career is going to end?’ – and I didn’t want it to end that way.”
Thankfully, Ralston’s career didn’t end that way, although it certainly appeared as if his time with the Revolution had run its course when in January he informed the club he would not be returning for the 2010 season. After careful consideration, Ralston decided to take a position as a player and assistant coach with AC St. Louis of the USSF Division-2 Pro League in an effort to help build a professional soccer club in his hometown.
For a few months, the move seemed to be paying dividends for Ralston, who was gaining invaluable coaching experience while rehabbing the torn ACL he had suffered in his last appearance with the Revolution. He even recovered from the injury ahead of schedule, making two appearances – including one start – with his hometown club.
But in May, severe financial difficulties within AC St. Louis’ ownership group put Ralston’s situation in doubt. Concerns were heightened even further when the ownership group shut down its Women’s Professional Soccer club, Saint Louis Athletica, on May 27.
“Basically, they stopped paying,” said Ralston, who claims he still doesn’t understand exactly what the situation was with ownership. “I went back (to St. Louis) with the idea of trying to build something there in my hometown and I was really looking forward to it. Unfortunately, I don’t think we accomplished that.”
With his future in St. Louis uncertain, Ralston was given permission by the club to explore a return to MLS, and talks with the Revolution began. Just a few days later, the paperwork was signed and he was back in New England undergoing a physical and searching for a place to live.
As he made the journey back to Foxborough, Ralston recalled the night he had been helped off the Gillette Stadium field, unable to walk after tearing his ACL.
“I feel very fortunate to come back and have the opportunity to do it the right way,” he said.
This past Monday afternoon, Ralston wandered around the Revolution locker room checking out the nameplates of his “new” teammates and peeking into the players’ lounge, the treatment room and the coaches’ office. The nostalgic exercise resembled a college freshman walking the halls of his high school after his first semester away.
“Looks the same,” Ralston said, glancing around the room in which he’s spent countless hours and celebrated myriad victories. “It feels good. It feels like I just had a long vacation but I’m back where I belong.”
The real treat for Ralston didn’t arrive until his first training session on Wednesday morning, when he was greeted in the locker room by the teammates he’d grown so close with during his previous stint in New England. He made his way around the room chatting with old friends like Shalrie Joseph and Matt Reis, while he introduced himself to the rookies and players who joined this past offseason.
As happy as Ralston was to catch up with his teammates, they might’ve been even more excited to see him back in Revolution gear.
“It’s huge,” said Joseph, grinning from ear to ear at the mention of Ralston. “It’s a huge relief for me in terms of having a guy that’s a strong leader, a guy that’s been there, knows how to play the game and (has) the leadership quality we need on this team. He’s going to come in and make an instant impact because a lot of the guys know him, he’s been around, and he’s just a huge influence wherever he goes. To have him back, it just feels great to have him in our locker room.”
Of course, there is still the question of Ralston’s right knee, which was protected by a brace during Wednesday’s training session. However, according to Ralston, the brace is merely a precaution.
“[The knee] feels fine,” he said. “I played 90 minutes last game (with St. Louis) and it felt fine. No problems during the game or after the game.
“The brace obviously isn’t ideal, but the doctors want me to continue to wear it a little bit longer just to be safe, and that’s fine with me,” he continued. “I’ve gotten used to it. It took a little bit to get there, but if it’s going to keep me on the field then I’ll wear it. I’ll wear a helmet if it’s going to let me play the game.”
While the knee is no longer a concern, Ralston admits that his fitness and sharpness aren’t yet at peak condition. Luckily, his signing occurred at an opportune time, as the Revs have another 18 days before their next league match against the Chicago Fire on June 27, giving Ralston three weeks to train before the regular season resumes.
In addition to the training time, Ralston will have the chance to test himself in a game situation this Sunday evening when Brazilian power Cruzeiro visits Gillette Stadium for an international friendly.
Ralston will get to pull the Revolution jersey on once again this weekend against Cruzeiro, but he knows that the truly emotional moment won’t arrive until one of New England’s biggest rivals comes to town in late June.
“It’s going to be awesome,” said Ralston about the Fire’s visit on June 27. “I hope I get the opportunity (to play). I’ll be ready to play. If they ask me to play one minute, 90 minutes – whatever they’re going to ask me to do – I’m going to do it 100 percent. I think the fans know how I always play, and that’s what I’ll be when I go out on the field again.”