Earlier today, AC St. Louis of the new NASL announced the signing of Steve Ralston as a player and assistant coach for their upcoming inaugural season. The former New England Revolution and MLS original decided to leave the Revolution after a new contract could not be worked out. He returns to his home town of St. Louis as the NASL’s highest profile signing to date.

As recently as last Thursday, the veteran midfielder was still considering signing with the Revolution for a ninth consecutive season. However, he informed the team later that day he would be moving on. Speculation had Ralston signing elsewhere in MLS, though that move might prove risky for any team to make for a 35 year old coming off a devastating knee injury. Apparently the deal in St. Louis must have been discussed throughout January, in the time since his MLS contract ran out at the end of 2009, with Ralston using that offer in his negotiations with the Revs.

Ralston leaves MLS as one of the last remaining members of the class of 1996. After six years with the Tampa Bay Mutiny, he moved to New England in 2002 following the dispersal of players after the Mutiny were contracted from the league. His longevity in the top flight of American soccer left its mark on the MLS record book, with Ralston toping the list for games started (372), games played (378), minutes played (33,143), and assists (135) in the league’s 14 year history. While he never won an MLS Cup, he participated four times with the Revolution. Ralston also leaves MLS as a seven-time All-Star and three-time Best XI selection.

As exciting a signing this is for AC St. Louis, it is sad day for MLS to lose one of its remaining original players. His importance to the Revolution was without question, and was especially evident when he went down to injury late in the 2009 season. At an age where most players are showing a decline in speed and skill, Ralston’s veteran play provided stability to an already strong Revolution midfield. It will be difficult to for him to fully regain his abilities following his latest injury, but his quality would still allow him to be an important part of most MLS teams.

The move from MLS to the NASL by Ralston certainly does not signal the beginning of heavy roster poaching by the new league. However, it does signal that with their return as a brand-name, the NASL wants to capture the attention of the American soccer audience. The addition of a US Men’s National Team and MLS veteran today makes it clear that the league looks to make a splash in 2010.