AC St. Louis of the new North American Soccer League (NASL) announced the signing of St. Louis native Steve Ralston as the club's first official player. Ralston will also serve as an assistant coach for the team. Ralston, 35, is a 14-year veteran of Major League Soccer, and holds the record for most appearances by a professional player in the United States.I think this is a good move on multiple levels.
"This is a day I always dreamed would happen," said Ralston. "I think anyone who plays professional sports wants to play in their hometown. I am fortunate to get to do just that at this stage of my career. Obviously it is an exciting time for soccer in St. Louis since we now have our own professional team. I am honored to be the first player to become a part of this new franchise."
"Bringing a veteran leader into our team as a building block of our franchise is absolutely crucial for us," stated AC St. Louis Chairman Jeff Cooper. "The fact that he grew up in St. Louis and is a well known name to sports fans here is just a bonus. It is not everyday you get to bring home a player that has played the most games in the history of the MLS."
First, AC St. Louis gets a native player, a solid, veteran with lots of high level experience. Ralston is making the transition to the next level of his career toward coaching. At the same time, it highlights two great problem that MLS has experienced. First, New England would retain Ralston's rights, which would make it difficult for Ralston to go to another team. So that means that Ralston has to go to another league. Second, St. Louis, a historic locale for American soccer has petitioned a number of times to have a MLS franchise in that city, but have been denied.
Second, this move immediately brings attention to the NASL. Like it or not, the NASL has aspirations to challenge to MLS as the preeminent league in America in the future. (Think the old AFL and NFL merging to create a much more powerful league.).
Third, Ralston's move (combined with moves like Brian McBride going to Chicago or Dwayne DeRosario back to Toronto) shows that players like to play near their roots. That kind draw is important and means that as soccer grows in America, the importance of local draws becomes more and more important. With the first second generation player (Teal Bunbury) starting to play in MLS, roots are going to be set down for clubs and that means a more feverant fan base, better support, better "derbies" and more revenue for the leagues.
I like the Ralston move and I am not surprised. Good luck to him and St. Louis AC.