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The Assist Artist

Oftentimes the most thrilling play in soccer is not the goal, but what happens seconds before somebody scores. It's especially true when Steve Ralston has the ball.

Steve Ralston has a knack for spotting scoring chances for teammates.
Steve Ralston has a knack for spotting scoring chances for teammates. (Photo by Robert E. Klein for the Boston Globe)

The ball can be on you so quickly that all you have time to do is get your head in front of it - crazy as that seems - and redirect it ever so slightly past the fingers of the diving keeper. Or you can see it coming for what turns out to be long enough for you to get to where it will come down, or almost down, and then you meet it without breaking stride, just before it would have hit the ground, and the keeper never moves because he can see it coming, too - and see that he has no chance.

In soccer, a sport where one goal is often the difference, the scorers get the glory. But the passes leading to those goals can be as brilliant as the scores. And nobody playing Major League Soccer today is passing better than the New England Revolution midfielder Steve Ralston. In a 1-0 win over the New York Red Bulls on July 14, with a simple backward pass off his heel to Shalrie Joseph (who passed to Andy Dorman, who scored), Ralston racked up his 115th assist, replacing Colombia's Carlos Valderrama as the league's all-time assist leader.

A hockey player who slips the puck across the crease and onto the stick of a charging teammate or a 7-footer who slaps the basketball out to a guard who hits a 3 gets credit for an assist, too. But the former play often transpires too quickly for even HDTV to catch it, and the latter happens so often that it feels routine. Soccer goals are rare, and much appreciated for that reason. Some of the assists that make them possible appear to happen in slow motion, and many are even more aesthetically pleasing than the goals.

"I've had the good fortune to play with three of the best scorers MLS has had in Roy Lassiter, Mamadou Diallo, and, of course, Taylor Twellman," Ralston says, but it might legitimately be said that those three have been lucky to have played with Ralston. Twellman - the offensive star of the Revolution for the past half-dozen years - acknowledges that when he's making a run at the goal and sees Ralston with the ball at his feet, "my eyes are as big as you'll ever see them." In the six seasons they've been teammates, Ralston, who began his MLS career with Tampa Bay, has taught Twellman to expect a pass that can be converted to a goal.

New England's coach, Steve Nicol, expects the same. "Watch how many times he gets the ball," Nicol says of Ralston. "He gets it as much as anyone on the field. Plus, he has a brain. To have that many assists, he's got a soccer brain."

It's high praise from the Scot who's inclined to understatement. But Ralston, short and slight enough so that his photograph might appear in the dictionary beside "unprepossessing," discounts his coach's compliments. "Sometimes I don't even look," he says with a smile. "Sometimes I just try to put it in a dangerous spot." When the team's public-relations staff began reminding him last spring that he was approaching the league's all-time assist record, Ralston frustrated them by saying: "I don't want to hear about that stuff. I just want to go out and play."

Ralston's talents have not gone unnoticed. He's been called up to play for the US National Team on more than 30 occasions, and his goal against Mexico on September 3, 2005, clinched his team a spot in the 2006 World Cup Finals in Germany. But on a New England club that has sent Clint Dempsey to England's Premiership - one of the game's most exalted leagues - for big money and that has showcased the aforementioned Twellman as a flashy scoring threat, Ralston's talents may have been underrated by fans whose appreciation of the game comes from the highlight films featuring only the thump at the end of the play, the billowing of the net, and the cry of "Goal!"

Ralston might take some solace from the fact that those who best understand such delights as the gradual building up of a scoring threat relish his contribution. They treasure the player with a defender on his back, who can see where his teammate will be 10 seconds hence, hold the ball for just a moment, and turn into space, away from that defender, to put the ball where that teammate will find it with his foot. Then there's nothing left for the scorer to do but finish the work of art Steve Ralston has begun.

Bill Littlefield is the host of National Public Radio’s Only a Game. His new book, by the same name, is out now. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

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