FOXBOROUGH -- The day after the Revolution's playoff run concludes, Steve Ralston will probably go into his backyard and practice shooting. Yes, Ralston is dedicated -- to bow and arrow target shooting. And also to firing a shotgun during hunting season. And to fishing. Soccer comes first for Ralston, the all-time leader in MLS games played, but he is comfortable tying flies, as well as flying down the right wing.
Ralston has been influenced as much by Colombia's legendary midfielder, Carlos Valderrama, as Denny Brauer, the Bassmaster champion.
Denny Brauer? That was who Ralston listed as his favorite athlete in his press guide biography.
"When I am at home," Ralston said, "the Outdoor Channel is on all the time. I love those shows."
But Ralston is rarely in couch potato mode.
The day after the Revolution were eliminated by Chicago from last season's playoffs, Ralston headed off on a solo hunt with his bow. By noon, Ralston had returned with a skinned and quartered buck, enough meat for most of the winter for Ralston, his wife, Rachel, and 2-year-old daughter, Anna.
"It seems like I have been going fishing my whole life," said Ralston, who grew up in the St. Louis area. "We used to go to my grandparents' and fish on the farm ponds. We took vacations to Tennessee, Lake of the Ozarks. We moved a little ways out of the city when I was 10 and I used to ride my bike to fish on the ponds. I didn't take up hunting until the last five or six years with some friends in Tampa. I do both, shotgun and black powder, but I prefer the bow -- it's more of a challenge."
A sharp eye, composure, and patience are good qualities for a fisherman, hunter, or penalty-kick taker.
Ralston has converted the deciding goal to clinch playoff berths for the Revolution the last two seasons, a penalty kick in a 1-0 victory over D.C. United last year and a precise finish off a Jose Cancela pass in a 2-1 win over Chicago this season. That was Ralston's 52d goal in MLS games, more than any current Revolution player, though Ralston is more often in a position to set up goals rather than score them. In fact, Ralston was directly involved in almost half of Taylor Twellman's 23 goals in the 2002 season, his ability to outmaneuver defenders and cross developing into the Revolution's most effective weapon.
But the opposition has concentrated on limiting the Ralston-Twellman combination, and Ralston even has been moved into defense, playing right fullback for much of this season in an attempt to improve the team's distribution. But Ralston returned to the right wing as the Revolution rallied at the end of the season, earning 9 points in the last five games to edge Chicago for the final playoff position in the Eastern Conference.
Ralston has been able to survive in the rough-and-tumble style of MLS partly because of his skill, developed growing up, and tactical awareness, honed while performing alongside Valderrama in Tampa Bay. Ralston has played every minute of every Revolution game this season and will start his 32d game of the season in a playoff decider at Columbus, Ohio, tomorrow.
"Your first touch gets you out of trouble and puts you in position for shots and crosses," Ralston said.
That first touch also keeps defenders at bay, and allows Ralston to play under control, the ball seldom getting away from him.
"If I have a chance to win the ball, I will go for it," Ralston said. "I did break my ankle once, but I played the rest of the season on it. A lot of it is luck. You play through a lot of stuff, but I take care of myself, I don't go out a lot, I always make sure I warm up and stretch. I am 30 but I feel like I can run and do everything. My brother [Dave] is 41 and he still plays soccer, competes in triathlons, runs marathons."
Ralston played on the right side for Tampa Bay in the Mutiny's inaugural game, a 3-2 win over the Revolution April 13, 1996. He is the only player from that game still playing in a First Division league.
In high school, Ralston played tennis and volleyball, competed in cross-country, and ran the mile in track. Ralston kept his soccer career going, despite being cut by Busch SC, one of the top clubs in St. Louis, and failing to make the starting lineup for his high school team.
"In soccer, I didn't start my senior year," Ralston said. "We had a good team and I thought I should be starting, but I sprained my ankle and when I came back, I was on the bench. I tied for the team lead in scoring, but because I wasn't in the starting lineup, I wasn't recruited by any big schools. I had good coaches at Scott Gallagher [another top club] and I also played in the Bud Premier League, even though I wasn't on a team. The elite players of the area were there and I would go to the field and ask coaches if they needed anyone, and end up playing two games a night."
Ralston enrolled at Forest Park Junior College and was coached by Pat McBride, who had played for the St. Louis Stars in the North American Soccer League, then Ralston moved to Florida International University in Miami.
"As good a player as he was, he was an even better person," Ralston said of McBride. "I needed confidence and he provided it for me, I did well, and went to FIU. Things happened pretty fast."
Soccer ended after college for many United States players until MLS started in 1996, and Ralston returned to Florida. Ralston played professional indoor soccer with the St. Louis Steamers, then joined the Tampa Bay Mutiny, coach Thomas Rongen building the team around Valderrama and placing Ralston on the right wing. That launched Ralston's pro career and, eventually, gave him a place on the international stage with the US national team. Ralston has played 16 times and scored twice for the US.
"He is the best I have ever seen," Ralston said of Valderrama. "He got on guys a lot and some thought he was tough to play with. He got on me, but it was OK. I learned to give him the ball and start running, and he would find me. Even when he had two guys on him, he still wanted the ball. He never stood still long enough, he played one-, two-touch, and moved. He was stronger than he appeared and he held the ball so well, so he protected himself. And, if you whacked him, you would get whacked back.
"That is what you have to do -- play the ball and move. Don't hold it too long and dribble, because if you sit around, you will get whacked."