Truthfully, MLS probably couldn't have hoped for a better first player ever signed to then fledgling league than Tab Ramos. He was the dream player for the upstart league, even if his first few days in the league were anything but a dream.
Two days before he was set to make his debut on May 5 with the then NY/NJ MetroStars, Ramos had landed in New Jersey, fresh off being knocked out of the playoffs with the Mexican club he had been under contract with at the time. He immediately reported to the MetroStars and despite jet lag and the overall fatigue of having just played a season in Mexico, Ramos trained that Friday with the team.
He remembers a long 45-minute drive from his hotel to the team's practice site at a private school in central New Jersey, something that didn't quite make sense to him. He was tired to the core but somehow gutted out through a practice with teammates he didn't know, many of whom weren't very good in what was a revolving door of personnel that year (the team used 36 players in 1996, the most in league history).
Now 20 years later, Ramos laughs that most of the players in the official team photo taken before opening day weren't on the squad by the time he arrived ahead of the third game of the season.
That Friday night with a game the following evening, Ramos had his Acura NSX stolen from the parking lot at the hotel where he was staying. It wasn't till days later that it was recovered.
"So somebody raced it for awhile then left it," Ramos can say now with a chuckle as he sits in the media room at Red Bull Arena.
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And yet despite all this drama and the weariness of his travel as well as the recently completed club season with Tigres, Ramos still managed to contribute in what would be a furious comeback and a 4-3 shootout win that night over the Tampa Bay Mutiny. It was the first ever win in franchise history.
A strange but very real start to the MLS career of a man whom the New York Red Bulls honored on Sunday night as one of their 20 best players in franchise history. New Jersey was always the place he wanted his MLS career to play out.
The odyssey to MLS and being its inaugural signing came in 1995 when Ramos was still recovering from a wicked elbow to the head from Brazil's Leonardo, a jolt that knocked him out of the United States second round match in the World Cup, a game they would eventually drop 1-0 to Brazil. He wasn't playing for Spanish club Real Betis due to the fractured bone in his skull (Ramos was one of the few Americans playing in Europe at the time) and seemed to be stuck in neutral in terms of his club career.
Then came a call from Sunil Gulati, now president of the US Soccer Federation, who then was overseeing many of the efforts of MLS, a league that was hoping to capitalize on the highly successful 1994 World Cup. Would Ramos be interested in not just playing in MLS but being the first player signed by the league?
He had interest and listened to Gulati. But he had one condition.
"As long as I can play in New Jersey, I'm coming back. Other wise, not really," Ramos said. He was born and bred in north Jersey, in the industrial town of Kearny just minutes from Red Bull Arena in Harrison.
"US Soccer got in the middle of that, they ended up taking over my contract and loaning me out to Tigres for a year-and-a-half to two years."
He's now an assistant coach with the United States national team and the head coach of the U-20 national team; despite being 48-years old still looks like he can suit up and play 90 minutes. Ramos hasn't aged a bit, a hint of white around his sideburns but he is still active, still in love with the game.
Sunday night saw him honored as one of the best players in the history of a franchise that started off as the MetroStars and now is known as the Red Bulls. A lot has changed since then as the days of playing on artificial surfaces in Giants Stadium before crowds that sometimes filled one-tenth of its enormous capacity. The crowds - if they can be called that - echoed around the cavernous NFL stadium and the quality on the field was suspect at times.
As he walked out to be announced by the fans on Sunday, much of the crowd of 22,645 were in their seats, a crowd that size rarely happened in the Giants Stadium days. Red Bull Arena is a soccer-specific stadium, a beautiful venue for the game.
The kind of place fitting for a Tab Ramos, long-rumored during his playing days but never a reality. Instead, the artificial surface of the Meadowlands cut short his brilliant career.
"Three blocks away there's the closed down plastic factor where my mother worked. I used to live on Sussex Street, it's literally five blocks from here then I lived on Harrison Avenue. I used to ride my bike down here. This used to be like gas tanks," Ramos said.
"It's like an oasis to have this here, especially if you grew up in this area so I can't believe it every time. Then on top of it, the fact that soccer has gotten to the point where everything is so special. I can tell you one thing, there's no feelings of jealousy or I wish I could be playing now. Just pride that I could be a part of what it took to get here."