It’s 20 minutes after AC St. Louis falls to the Kansas City Wizards in a preseason friendly, and Steve Ralston is worried the team bus is going to leave without him. From any viewpoint but Ralston’s, the idea is absurd.
Forget that he's the most experienced player in the history of professional soccer in the United States with a record 412 appearances. Forget that he's Major League Soccer’s all-time leader in assists (135), appearances (378), starts (372) and minutes played (33,143).
This isn’t some nameless rookie trying to make the team. Ralston is the face of AC St. Louis, a hometown boy who returned to his roots to help launch professional soccer in a city with a historical appreciation for the beautiful game.
Although he's still six weeks away from playing on his surgically repaired right knee, Ralston is easing into his dual role as the club’s marquee signing as well as an assistant coach to manager Claude Anelka.
“I’ve enjoyed it so far,” Ralston said, “but I’m anxious to get back on the field. I’m doing rehab on the knee, and I think first and foremost that I’m here to play.”
If his age-defying career in MLS is any indication, Ralston surely has at least a few productive seasons left in the tank for St. Louis. Over 14 seasons with the Tampa Bay Mutiny and New England Revolution, the MLS original scored 76 goals, played in four MLS Cups and was a seven-time All-Star.
And although he can’t wait to join his teammates on the field, Ralston is also enjoying transferring the leadership skills he cultivated as a player into his role as assistant coach.
“The coaching bit is new for me so I’m learning as I go here,” he said. “I pull guys aside and talk to them about things I have experienced. It’s been good. I’m really enjoying that side of it right now.”
Not as much as he will be when he gets back to delivering the pinpoint crosses and through-balls that made him one of MLS’ most dangerous -- and consistent -- offensive threats for more than a decade.
Since entering the league as a rookie in 1996, Ralston has seen the league progress from barely keeping its head above water to expanding into cities starving for a professional soccer presence. In the process, the infrastructure surrounding the league’s clubs has grown as much as the quality of play on the field.
“The things that stick out to me are the stadiums because back then they were all football stadiums and also the age of the players,” Ralston said. “I was a young kid. I was 21 when I came in the league. Now they are all 16, 17, 18 years old, making a difference.”
With a youthful roster that includes at least seven players from the St. Louis metro area, Ralston will have plenty of opportunities to mentor the game’s next generation of talent while setting the table for a future career in coaching.
And what about the recent play of Clint Dempsey, a young player who developed under Ralston’s wing in New England? Dempsey scored a delightful, no-look chip that tumbled just under the crossbar to topple Italian giants Juventus last week and send Fulham to the Europa League quarterfinals.
“It was nice,” Ralston said with a sly grin. “I wish I could say I taught him that."