TAB RAMOS has placed himself at the prow of American professional soccer. In January, he became the first player to sign a contract with Major League Soccer (MLS), the 10-team league that begins play in the United States next March.
There was no hesitancy on Ramos's part. "I thought it would be an honor to be the first player in the league," said the New Jersey native during a recent stop in Boston. "We didn't have to negotiate anything. It was just a matter of me saying, 'Yeah, let's go; let's do it."
All the core players from last summer's US World Cup team are eventually expected to sign an MLS contract, according to a league spokesman, but to date only two lesser-known players have joined Ramos in signing.
Ramos currently plays in the Mexican League and says that returning home will not be especially lucrative for the top Americans, who stand to make less than they would overseas.
Furthermore, the commitment required could be far greater. "We're going to have to do a lot more than just play; I think we're going to be responsible for promoting the game in many ways," Ramos explains while sitting in the courtyard of a suburban Boston hotel that temporarily houses the US national team.
Ramos, a 1988 Olympian and two-time World Cup performer, rejoined the squad for the US Cup, a four-team, round-robin tournament that runs through June 25. Though injured and unable to compete in the opening US-Nigeria game, won 3-2 Sunday by the US in Foxboro, Mass., Ramos could see action June 18 in Washington against Mexico and June 25 in Piscataway, N.J., against Colombia.
A 5 ft. 7 in., 140-lb. midfielder, Ramos dreamed of playing for the New York Cosmos of the now defunct North American Soccer League.
Ramos's father, Julian, played soccer professionally in Uruguay, where Tab was born. The son is the product of New Jersey street-corner games. "Where I grew up, in Kearny," he says, "if you went to the playground all you could play was soccer."
In the style of pickup basketball, teams tried to earn their right to stay on the concrete soccer "courts" by winning games against all comers. Ramos says this was an excellent "classroom."
Ramos matured into the nation's top high school player at St. Benedict's Prep in Newark, N.J., in 1983. That same year he was made the top draft choice of the New York Cosmos, who once attracted crowds of 60,000 or more in the late 1970s.
Even before graduating, Ramos began training with the Cosmos, but didn't accept any money because of the North American Soccer League's rumored collapse. He wanted to remain eligible for college soccer, which he played at North Carolina State University. From there, he turned professional and spent two years in the American Soccer League and five years in Spain. Last year he moved to Mexico, where the slower-paced, more skillful playing style suits his abilities. At this stage, however, he is eager to return home, now that he and his wife have a two-month-old son.
And Major League Soccer officials let him choose to play in New York/New Jersey.
Having seen various American soccer leagues come and go, he says it will be important to "start small and be humble. If teams average only 8,000 spectators a game, we have to deal with that and go from there."