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Ralston reaches the top

In five years, the Mutiny midfielder rises from the roster bubble to become an All-Star starter.

By RODNEY PAGE

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 29, 2000


In 1996, when Steve Ralston arrived at the inaugural Mutiny training camp, he had only one goal.

"I just wanted to make the team," Ralston said.

He was a 21-year-old midfielder from Florida International and the Mutiny's second-round draft pick in newly formed Major League Soccer. A frail 5 feet 9 and 155 pounds, Ralston was a standout at FIU, where he led the nation in scoring in his junior year with 56 points. But this was a different game. The rookie was teamed with grizzled veterans such as Carlos Valderrama, Cle Kooiman and Frank Yallop. And he had a tough coach, Thomas Rongen.

Instead of being intimidated, Ralston quietly produced.

He played in 31 games, finishing with seven goals and two assists and keeping the veterans happy. Ralston was MLS' first rookie of the year.

Since then, Ralston has played 142 games. He is the only Mutiny player to play all five seasons in Tampa Bay.

He starts at midfield for the East team in today's fifth annual All-Star Game, the first time he has been voted a starter by fans. Ralston received 50,072 votes, fourth among the five midfielders selected.

In 1997, Ralston was an East reserve.

He joins Valderrama, the top vote-getter with 65,681. He also is the East captain.

Mutiny forward Mamadou Diallo and goalkeeper Scott Garlick were named reserves by coach Octavio Zambrano.

"Never in my wildest dreams did I think this could happen back then," Ralston said. "It's nice that the fans recognized me. I'm really kind of surprised. It's all a popularity contest anyway. But this is my fifth year in the league, and I think the fans have seen me play long enough. Playing with the national team might have helped, also."

Ralston has six appearances for the U.S. national team. His first was Jan. 17, 1997, against Peru. His most recent was June 7, when he played 45 minutes against Ireland.

But his performance in MLS has given Ralston the most exposure.

No one has logged more minutes (12,473) than Ralston, who has missed nine games in five seasons. He has played in all eight Mutiny playoff games and all 10 of its U.S. Open Cup games.

He is the Mutiny's all-time leading scorer with 102 points, 11 ahead of Valderrama. He was named one of MLS' Best 11 last season after leading the league with 18 assists.

This year he has 13 assists, tied for second in the league behind Valderrama's 20. He also has three goals.

"Steve is a footballer," Mutiny coach Tim Hankinson said. "He gives you all-out effort all the time. He's one of those players a coach says they wish they had 10 more of."

In Ralston's first All-Star Game, he entered in the 28th minute at Giants Stadium in 1997. He recorded an assist on a Robert Warzycha goal as the East beat the West 5-4.

He had a prime scoring chance in the second half, but his shot banged off the crossbar.

Ralston hopes to make an impact in his second All-Star Game but with a different attitude. "(1997) was a great experience," he said. "But I was so intimidated. I was in awe at that time. I didn't know what to do. This time around I think I'll be more relaxed and have more fun. I'm going to enjoy myself."

OWNERSHIP UPDATE: MLS' Board of Governors met Friday in Columbus, Ohio, but did not finalize the sale of operating rights for D.C. United or the Mutiny. The league is said to be in negotiations with international investment company Warburg Pincus, which is interested in the rights to both clubs.

"The discussions are still ongoing," commissioner Don Garber said. He gave no timetable for completing the deals.

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