Alexi Lalas is an icon of American soccer. Whether it was his nine years of professional experience playing in Italy, Ecuador and MLS, or his international career for the United States where he starred in the 1994 World Cup, Alexi has always been a talking point. He is now a soccer analyst for ESPN and ABC.
Here’s the interview I conducted with him recently.
Kristan (KH): Currently you are an analyst for ESPN. Just how difficult is that job? Do you ever get frustrated at some fans nature to go over everything you say with a fine tooth comb?
Alexi (AL): I love working on TV for ESPN. Like I said, I’m an entertainer and I make no apologies for it. I have no problem with anyone taking issue with something I may say, that’s part of the gig. To be honest, opposing views are what makes sports (and politics) fun. When I meet people in person they are very respectful and actually appreciate the fact that, while they may not always agree with me, they like the fact that I’m honest, passionate and articulate when expressing my views.
KH: You once said Soccer is not a ‘fast food kind of sport.’ Do you stand by that? Do you think it’s more complicated than America’s more popular sports?
AL: Soccer is not a sport that caters to the surface pleasures. It can impact on various levels, during and after consumption. It takes its time and often the process as a whole is what leaves one satisfied, not just the obvious moments of quality. It is not a complicated game to understand but it is a complicated game to love. It requires an acquired ability to appreciate subtle nuance and accept subjective interpretations of the rules and strategies.
KH: Many fans of MLS say it’s strength is the level playing field. Can it really be considered level when teams like LA Galaxy and New York Red Bulls seem so stacked in talent compared to others?
AL: I still maintain that MLS is the most competitive league in the world. I don’t say the most entertaining or popular, but with the salary cap and single-entity system we do not yet have the clear haves and have-nots that the rest of the world does. Although it’s true NY and LA have spent more on their product and are starting to pull away, the competitive parity that exists between teams is still unlike anywhere else in the world.
KH: During your seven year stint in MLS you played at four different clubs. Do you have a favourite of the four?
AL: I think that my time at LA Galaxy was special because of the success we had. The wonderful thing about being a part of a new league is that you are often given the opportunity to write history and establish tradition. Many years from now when I’m old and grey, I will still be a member of the LA Galaxy team that won the first MLS Cup in the club’s history. I’m proud of that.
KH: You actually oversaw NYRB’s transition from Metrostars to NYRB and hailed it as a fantastic move. Do you think your comments have been vindicated?
AL: I took a lot of heat for my very public commitment to creating an MLS “SuperClub” while GM of the LA Galaxy and the MetroStars. Now in 2011 we see both LA and NY spending the most money and starting to set themselves apart in terms of world-wide perception. I recognized that it was an arms race and a unique opportunity to become the brand that people think about when they think of MLS. Maybe I lacked some of the tools and skills to fulfill the vision at the time but it’s still fun to see it finally coming to fruition.
KH: Your old team-mate Claudio Reyna is now the US Youth Soccer Technical Director. What do you think of his mission statement for US Soccer?
AL: I think Claudio has a very difficult job. To influence youth soccer in the U.S. is no small feat. Youth soccer clubs have long wielded a significant amount of money and power. They have a vested interest in keeping the status quo. Claudio’s recent curriculum and pronouncements are still very broad but I think he’s done a good job of starting a dialogue about how to develop talent in a consistent way throughout the country.
KH: In a recent interview you dubbed Andy Najar as ‘special’. How big a loss is he to the USMNT, and did you ever believe he was likely to change allegiances?
AL: Ultimately, I want players who want to play for the US. It’s an honor and privilege. Andy [Najar] is not the first or the last player who will choose to go elsewhere. He’s certainly a talent but it is not a devastating loss to the USMNT. His decision is actually an indirect comment and compliment on the depth and quality that exists right now on the USMNT. He took a look at the current and emerging talent and calculated that he had a better chance to play elsewhere.
KH: As an American centre back who played in the peninsula with Padova, what advice would you give to Oguchi Onyewu upon his return to Milan?
AL: Gooch has had some bad luck with injuries. Now that he is back and playing consistently I think he will return to Milan with confidence. But he is not going to return a completely different player. If he continues to sit at Milan then it becomes counterproductive. He needs to figure out quickly if he has a future on the field in Milan. If not, then get to another team. My time in Italy was priceless because, at the time, I was playing every week against the best teams and players in the world.
KH: Prior to your time in Italy you trained with Arsenal. Sum up that experience for us. What was the best lesson you learned during that time?
AL: I had a trial in the end of 1992 with Arsenal which was a real eye-opening experience. I was nobody at the time but I was able to see what a professional club environment was like, something I had never been exposed to. I’ll never forget running the steps of the stands at Highbury with Tony Adams or eating potato skins with Ian Wright and Paul Merson at a TGI Friday’s restaurant. Although I wasn’t signed, the trial gave me confidence that I carried back to the U.S. and that I used when I was called into residency in 1993 with the USMNT in preparation for the 1994 World Cup.
KH: You made nearly 100 appearances for your country. Do you think it’s harder for players to reach those figures in modern football?
AL: From 1992-1994 we were in residency with the USMNT as we prepared for the 1994 World Cup. We functioned as a professional team simply playing international games all over the world. That is a major reason why many of us from that generation have so many caps. That would never happen today and an international career should be quality over quantity.
KH: You were a key member of the national team at USA 94 even though you had never played a pro game before. How steep was the learning curve for you?
AL: I was 24 years old when I stepped on the field for the 1994 World Cup. I had never played a single professional game for a club but I had played more international games than many world stars. I had no idea what to expect but I also had no club distractions. My physical and mental preparation was totally geared towards the World Cup and international soccer. In a sense, I did it backwards. By the time the 1994 World Cup rolled around I was much more prepared for international soccer than club soccer.
KH: During that time you were also known for your long locks and guitar playing, Do you think MLS and maybe even the USMNT needs more characters?
AL: I watch sports for the personalities, the characters and the show. I’ve always considered myself an entertainer. People pay money and want to see a show. How you look, how you act and what you say is part of the show. But that doesn’t mean that I didn’t take my play seriously or that I didn’t always want to win. I think we do a poor job of cultivating personality from a young age. Rather than celebrate and encourage players to express themselves within a team environment we often dampen or criticize the very attributes that could make them even more appealing and, I believe, even better players.
KH: Many hailed the 1994 squad as ground breaking for US Soccer, where does the 2010 team fall in the context of US Soccer?
AL: A World Cup is often about the moments that endure. In that sense, the 2010 team left an indelible impression on the U.S. sports landscape with their performances and the drama that accompanied them. But I think it’s also fair to say that it was a massive missed opportunity. A golden path to the semi-final through Ghana and Uruguay opened up and we were unable to capitalize. You never know if that type of pathway will open up again, but maybe we’re just destined to win a World Cup the hard way.
KH: If you could pick an all time USMNT XI to play with who would you pick and why?
GK – Tony Meola. He was great with his feet and when a big save had to be made he made it.
LB – Jeff Agoos. The best distributor of the ball from the back in U.S. history.
CB – Me. I’m awesome.
CB – Tim Ream. He’s that good. Plus, I need a young guy to cover my ass.
RB – Claudio Reyna. Class on the ball. I’ll put him at right-back but he’s got carte blanche.
LM – Landon Donovan. Best player the U.S. has ever produced.
CM – Tab Ramos. He was ahead of his time. Quickest first step I’ve ever seen. Best player I ever played with.
CM – Clint Dempsey. Attitude and skill that enables him to create something out of nothing.
RM – Cobi Jones. Play it wide and he will beat his man and serve a cross 9 out of 10 times. Bank on it.
FW – Eric Wynalda. Big ego fueled the big time player. Deadly on set-pieces.
FW – Brian McBride. Could hold the ball and always dangerous in the box.
KH: Since retiring you’ve worked as a GM, have you ever considered just being an ‘M’ and taking up a managerial role?
AL: Yes. Managing (coaching) is something that and I would like to do and something that I would be good at.
KH: If there was one rule you could change or remove from MLS structure which would it be and why?
AL: I would get permission from FIFA and U.S. Soccer to take the MLS referees in-house. Our inability to control such a crucial part of the game is becoming detrimental to the business.
KH: In recent seasons we’ve seen the likes of Thierry Henry and Cuauhtémoc Blanco move to the league, which designated player would you like to see move next?
AL: Guys like [Didier] Drogba, [Andrea] Pirlo, [Miroslav] Klose, Guti, and [Nicolas] Anelka would be interesting. While I think the big-name signings will continue, I am also looking forward to the day when an MLS team becomes involved and wins an international bidding war for a young phenom. That would do wonders for the credibility and perception of the league.
KH: And finally, what do you do to relax, are you able to pull yourself away from soccer?
AL: I have been and continue to be heavily involved with music. I continue to write, record and perform and I’m fortunate to have something in my life that fulfills and challenges me as much as soccer ever did. I also continue to satisfy my life-long craving for Slurpees and red licorice.