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Alexi Lalas Strikes Again In Argument About MLS Inferiority Complex

alexi lalas1 Alexi Lalas Strikes Again In Argument About MLS Inferiority Complex

In Roger Bennett’s latest offering on ESPNFC.com, Alexi Lalas has once again said some incendiary things about soccer in the United States. In some cases Lalas is on the mark, but as is his custom, he overreaches and defeats his argument by going too far.

For starters, this article was written with the USA’s Gold Cup triumph as a point of reference. Consider that in the tournament Mexico’s most experienced player boasted 11 national team caps coming into the competition whereas the United States had two players with over 100 caps. While Mexico did not have a single player who had previously made a World Cup squad, the cumulative total of the World Cup squads made by the US team was 12, so while we can argue each major nation fielded something less than an “A” team, the USA team was far closer to being an “A” team than Mexico’s.

Let’s go quote by quote and I’ll share my thoughts.

“MLS was born the bastard child of self-loathing and self-doubt. We are apologetic to a fault when it comes to our league. The self-loathing is legendary and in many ways a hindrance. But it’s borne of a culture that always told us we could never measure up to the rest of the world when it came to soccer.”

On this, Lalas is correct. Too many soccer fans in America are dismissive of Major League Soccer’s quality on the pitch without actually evaluating the product objectively. From pure quality on the pitch among starting XIs, MLS is a more balanced league than some of the top leagues in Europe. And generally, top sides can measure up to just about any team in a major European league. However, the depth is just not there, and it is very difficult to see a MLS team constrained by rules to make the league hyper-competitive actually competing over the course of a season in a top European league. But in terms of actually quality, the difference between the starting XI for let’s say Norwich City and FC Dallas isn’t that dramatically different. But the Canaries bench is much deeper and filled with far more quality.

Many Premier League fans thumb their noses at MLS without really knowing, and on that score Lalas certainly has a valid point. By the way, the Premier League itself isn’t necessarily the top league in the world any longer, as results in Europe prove. The level of defensive shape and organization, as well as the frequent bad giveaways and defensive errors when compared to the other three top leagues in Europe all make the Premier League’s quality less questionable. The era when the Premier League was consistently putting two or three teams in the UEFA Champions League semifinals (2005 to 2009) is long gone.

Americans are “mesmerized by foreigners.”

Yes, and that is specifically the fault of Major League Soccer who repeatedly have increased the number of foreign players allowed on squads and have used foreign players as marketing tools, and have also until very recently been unwilling to pay as much money to retain good American talent in the league, which has resulted in them buying washed up foreign talent from second-tier European and South American leagues. Additionally, top US men’s national team players have complained in the past that MLS was unwilling to give them the type of top dollar salaries that they offered foreigners. So Lalas is correct, but don’t blame the soccer watching public in this country. Blame Major League Soccer.

“The league has a long history of foreign imports, from Lothar Matthaus to Rafa Marquez, who have not adapted despite their résumés because the level is higher than they anticipate here. It is a complete fallacy you have to go to Europe to be a better player. It may have helped Michael Bradley, but I don’t believe Landon Donovan’s growth and potential was stunted by staying in MLS.”

This is where Lalas’ argument really falls apart. Matthaus was 39 when he came to MLS and was clearly looking for a paid holiday after a great career in Germany and Italy. Marquez was already being phased out at Barcelona and was signed more as a marketing tool for Red Bull than a serious footballer. Though I have seen many players come from the British Isles and not acclimate, I think much of that has to do with the difficulty of travel in the States when compared to England, and also the quality of management.

On that point, which is the most important challenge facing MLS, the level of technical instruction and management is below that of any western European first division. The reason why players like Michael Bradley leave the US on their 18th birthday is that the tactical and technical instruction for youngsters just isn’t there. MLS coaches tend to be former players who understand the nuances and bizarre rules the league sports. The youth setup itself is poor and, as I have pointed out previously, the US’ results in international youth competitions have declined as more and more kids have come through MLS academies. That may be a temporary “growing pain” for the academy system or a very real sign that the level of coaching in these academies is poor.

To compare Michael Bradley’s development where he is rapidly becoming one of the top holding midfielders in continental football to Landon Donovan, a multiple time failure abroad, is laughable. Bradley is on his way to becoming perhaps the greatest American field player in European club football history. Donovan on the other hand has rarely, if ever, thrived outside his comfort zone. Michael Bradley’s father is a fair coach, to say the least, and he knew what was best for his son, and he had him leave MLS as soon as he turned 18.

“I made a lot more money when I came back because I was seen as a better player. Even though I benefited from that, I know a lot of it is just perception and marketing.”

Alexi Lalas, you were seen as a better player because you were playing against top competition in Serie A.

I also have to once again point out that both Bennett and Lalas fail to mention part of the difficulty MLS’ faces is the lack of relevance it has created outside of its markets. While many soccer fans are working hard promoting the sport in non-MLS markets via USL PRO, NASL, PDL, and NPSL, much of the American soccer press seems ignorant to these leagues, perhaps engaging in a concerted effort to minimize exposure for the sport outside of Major League Soccer. If you want to grow the game in this country, you have an obligation to pay attention to the lower divisions. Some journalists do it, but quite honestly most do not.

Photo credit: Gabriella S. Baetti

This entry was posted in Alexi Lalas, Leagues: Major League Soccer. Bookmark the permalink.

About Kartik Krishnaiyer

A lifelong lover of soccer, the beautiful game, he served from January 2010 until May 2013 as the Director of Communications and Public Relations for the North American Soccer League (NASL). Raised on the Fort Lauderdale Strikers of the old NASL, Krishnaiyer previously hosted the American Soccer Show on the Champions Soccer Radio Network, the Major League Soccer Talk podcast and the EPL Talk Podcast. His soccer writing has been featured by several media outlets including The Guardian and The Telegraph. He is the author of the book Blue With Envy about Manchester City FC.
View all posts by Kartik Krishnaiyer →

36 Responses to Alexi Lalas Strikes Again In Argument About MLS Inferiority Complex

  1. Paul says:

    nobody cares about Lalas’ opinion. And to think we will have to hear him talk every day now on ESPNFC.

    Fact is 10 years ago MLS wasn’t up to par. But any soccer fans out there can see the massive improvements the league has gone through. The quality of football is way way way better than what it was. And that’s all football fans really want: Good Football!!

    so i dont care about Lalas’(or Twellman’s) opinion.

    One thing i’d like to see change about Youth football in the us though is the high fee parents have to pay to get their kids to a good academy. That’s one of the bigger hindrances to football in the us.

    • Rob Donnelly says:

      Totally agree, I’m a coach at an academy and only middle class kids can afford to play, you will never produce world class players if you insist on pricing out working class families. Football is a game for all, its not tennis or golf. I’ve had to turn away several talented American born Hispanic kids in the last year because i couldn’t get scholarships for them.

    • Pete Q says:

      Agree also.

      I have to say that I’ve shyt on the MLS for a looong time. It was a major disappointment for me as a football viewer.

      But the league has vastly improved…especially the “top” MLS teams/clubs.

      But I wouldn’t go as far as to say that the top MLS clubs would measure up to European clubs.

      I got hammered for suggesting people should watch this weekends match on NBC Sports Network (7pm Saturday- NY Reb Bulls vs Kansas City). But the truth is the product isn’t as poor as it used to be. There is some good football played at times.

      But I can’t lie, the defending is scary bad (at times) and the passing accuracy is poor.

    • Guy says:

      “And to think we will have to hear him talk every day now on ESPNFC.”

      Oh, no “we” don’t, Paul! ;-)

  2. Marc L says:

    Lalas is a straight-up clown.

    At some point, I hope, people will just start ignoring him.

    And, uh, author, there is this quote:
    “And generally, top sides can measure up to just about any team in a major European league.”

    REALLY? Like where? In summer friendlies where no defense is being played?

    Has an MLS club ever so much as appeared in a CONCACAF Champions League final? I’m thinking maybe once in the 1990′s but I may even be giving the MLS too much credit.

    So until our “top” clubs can routinely best top clubs from Mexico and Honduras and the like, do not for an instant try to run that BS about MLS sides being anywhere near on par with any major European squads. It is just not true and you lose all credibility, I think, with a statement like that.

    • Kartik Krishnaiyer says:

      La Galaxy lost the CONCACAF final in 1997 but DC United won it in 1998. Real Salt Lake lost in 2012. As far as that competition is concerned the Mexican league is a vastly under rated league internationally.

      Most MLS sides have a starting XI that can compete abroad. It’s the depth where things really fall down.

      • Wongo1 says:

        Sorry mate but cannot agree with this even slightly. Let’s put it this way take the 6th place team in the PL, La Liga, Bundesliga, Eredivisie, League Une and put the Galaxy (the best team in MLS) next to them and the Galaxy simply do not hold up.

        The top MLS teams would do okay in the Championship of England (maybe) but would never be in the PL.

    • Will says:

      The CONCACAF Champions League has only existed in its current form since 2008, and Real Salt Lake lost to Monterrey in the final in 2010-2011. But, if you want to go back to before 2008, the Galaxy won in 2000 and DCU won in 1998.

      I wouldn’t say any MLS team is on par with a “major” European team (i.e. Chelsea, Bayern, Barcelona, etc.), but I don’t think it is an overstatement to say they are competitive against a more mid-tier team (i.e. Fulham, Swansea, etc.).

  3. Pete Q says:

    I’m not going to even bother reading the article or his comments because “ESPN’s Soccer Expert: Alexi Lalas” rarely makes a valid point.

    Note to ESPN: It’s not 1994. No one cares about Alexi Lalas anymore.

    • Bishopville Red says:

      …and that’s really the crux of this non-issue. As Lalas said himself when it came to his playing return, “I know a lot of it is just perception and marketing.”

      Lalas always been a savvy self-promoter. He was less than a mediocre defender in Italy, but managed to “beard and personality” his way to a contract and some degree of fame.

      Now, with 1994 little more than a legend to the current generation of North American Footy fans, Lalas knows he needs to keep up the perception and marketing in order to stay relevant. Lord knows, his GM skills were exposed thoroughly, so if he wants to continue to get a wage out of soccer he needs to make waves.

      SB

  4. Flyvanescence says:

    Other thanthe aforementioned part about mls starting xi matching up to europeans’, this is so on point.

    Kartik Krishnaiyer, you are the man.

  5. Gareth says:

    The problem with the MLS is not the quality of the players or the teams.

    The biggest issue preventing MLS from being a truly world-class league is our officiating, which is an amateurish joke.

  6. yb says:

    There are people who rail on US Soccer to the extreme, but Lalas goes too far in the other direction and makes it seem like MLS is just right and the rest of us just don’t understand. MLS has grown, but has problems, and Lalas has tried to be the guy who “won’t apologize” for US Soccer. That’s fine, but be realistic.

    MLS teams are no better than Championship clubs in England, and our youth will never be as good as the rest of the world until we decide to invest more in the 9-13 age group. And also, this notion that Donovan is a better player because he stayed in the MLS? People forget he spent two years in Leverkeusen’s youth setup. Even though he didn’t succeed for the senior team, don’t discount the fact that he learned from better coaches and trainers in Germany than he would’ve in the US during those two years.

  7. Kartik Krishnaiyer says:

    Very right about Donovan’s time in Leverkusen’s youth setup. Forgot to mention that!

  8. brn442 says:

    “It is a complete fallacy you have to go to Europe to be a better player.” – Perhaps Lalas was speaking from personal experience. It didn’t exactly work out for him.

    Donovan’s last loan stint at Everton was a successful one.

  9. Cody says:

    Alexi Lalas: Blah blah blah Americans need to leg hump the MLS blah blah blah.

    ESPN pays him to be contrarian.

  10. John says:

    I completely disagree with FC Dallas being equivalent to Norwich. I believe that all three relegated clubs from last season, would easily beat the top three clubs in the MLS. I can not buy into a MLS club surviving in the Premier League. Any starter or reserve player in the Premier League would instantly slot into the starting XI of an MLS club.

    Look at all of the lower division players in England or play in lower regarded associations that come over and can start in the MLS. Some may be gone now but here are examples… Luke Rodgers, Solli, Tainio, Robles. Many players make very little money in the league and if were talented enough to make top european flight money would be elsewhere.

    I remember watching the Red Bulls play Arsenal in a friendly a year or two ago and they had two European commentators calling the match on ESPN. Both seemed to think that the Red Bulls were mid-table championship side clubs at best, maybe even league one.

  11. Kevin says:

    The fact that people think the overall quality of the league has improved over the past ten years is an impressive accomplishment in itself.

    MLS nearly doubled in size over that time through expansion, which should have led to stagnation at best, and terrible dilution at worst. With expansion tailing off, I’m hopeful that the quality gains give teams the needed depth that is currently missing from most teams.

  12. Dean Stell says:

    The thing that bugs me about Lalas and others of his ilk is how they’re almost actively dismissive of our other leagues like NASL, USL, etc. I mean, if you even mention those leagues, you can see the MLS FAN raise their shields with the assumption that you’re a rapid pro/rel person.

    I come to soccer as an adult and the thing that I love about it is how it is a people’s sport. You don’t need much to start a club: Just a few players and a place to play. Anyone can do it. I love that entrepreneurial aspect of things compared to NFL or NBA or MLB.

    • Taylor says:

      The problem is the structure of MLS will only allow “the rich” to join. The other problem I think is how unclear NASL, USL plan to make money. I don’t see (at least I don’t understand) how the business model works. So I can’t completely blame them for dismissing other leagues.

  13. Tony Butterworth says:

    I literally stopped reading after this line

    “And generally, top sides can measure up to just about any team in a major European league”

    If that is the premise then everything after it must be flawed.

  14. Smokey Bacon says:

    “He overreaches and defeats his argument by going too far”. I wonder who else on here does that ALL THE TIME.

  15. john marzan says:

    gaffy, we will know if NBC’s EPL is a success or a flop after the world cup 2014.

    • john marzan says:

      i meant “gaffy, we will know if NBC’s EPL acquisition is a success or a flop after the world cup 2014.”

  16. norwalkvirus says:

    The MLS has come a long way towards developing an athletic brand. And if you evaluate the rosters as just that, athletes, you will see them being more comparable to various European Top Flights.

    What you don’t have is the same quality of footballers. The least tactically aware players in England are probably better trained footballers than most of the best home-grown “talent” in the MLS.

    I think most MLS teams would struggle even at the level of the ‘Fizzy-Pop’ Championship, simply because both the coaches and players are more tactically and strategically astute, despite being athletically inferior. That’s before we even mention technique (though, that may be a bit closer to even).

    And what is the biggest complaint about English Football in comparison to other European powers? That they put too much emphasis on Athleticism and Graft and too little emphasis on Technique and Tactics/Strategy.

    The MLS is quite entertaining in its own bubble, though. The CONCACAF Champions League will improve as the MLS becomes more wealthy, as will the MLS results in said competition. The economic restrictions on the MLS, as well as some other related quirks (eg indirect ownership) hinder its ability to expand but ensure its relative safety as an entity.

    I’ll second the cries for an improved look at the early teen youth levels, quality of academy coaching, and cost of academy education.

  17. William Roberts says:

    Why do all of you soccer fans continue to adhere to some imagined English blood line that requires you to call the field a ‘pitch’ and the teams ‘sides’? If you really want this sport to become relevant in America (admittedly quite a stretch) why not make it as much American here as it is German in Bundisliga and Italian in Seria A? Just because it isn’t our sport and never, ever will be, why treat it like a foreign import if you’re trying to make it important here? There are MLS cheering sections that simply imitate EPL fans and you soccer fans celebrate them. Why not hold them to a higher American standard? Why allow them to simply pretend to be EPL fans and that is good enough? It is a joke to think that someone who cheers for the Seattle Sounders is some kind of lifer soccer fan. Soccer here is an infant sport and any fans definitely did not learn to love it from their fathers or grandfathers. They are generally contrarians who played it in school because they were terrible at baseball, football, and basketball. But even allowing for that, why not take ownership of the sport in this country and make it the American version? I lived in England for 3 years and still never liked soccer. That was for the same reason so many Americans will never, ever enjoy the sport: the embarrassing and awkard flopping, the ties, no playoffs, the lack of scoring, the very slow pace. And the flopping again, which is just painful to watch. I don’t know how anyone can watch the flopping and then say the sport is in good shape. My English friends never had any answer for that. It ruins the entire game.
    But flopping aside, if it is being played in America, just let it be American and maybe, possibly, it will grow in popularity. The rest of us recognize what is going on: you are like XFL fans. The fan legacy is invented and fake, there is no history, there is no reason to like the team you pretend is important to the city. But if it’s going to be an American league, let’s make it good and make it actually matter. Let’s make it the best it can be and make it matter around the world. I can definitely say that after living in Europe over 4 years, the MLS is a total joke and not a single soccer fan overseas cares about it.
    Let’s just be honest that soccer is not popular in the US and won’t be because of cultural differences. But for those of you who care about it, make it better. That starts with the flopping. Look at the NBA: a rule against flopping. If that was introduced in the EPL, there would be anarchy.

  18. David says:

    “Consider that in the tournament Mexico’s most experienced player boasted 11 national team caps coming into the competition whereas the United States had two players with over 100 caps. While Mexico did not have a single player who had previously made a World Cup squad, the cumulative total of the World Cup squads made by the US team was 12, so while we can argue each major nation fielded something less than an “A” team, the USA team was far closer to being an “A” team than Mexico’s.”

    What did this have to do with anything? Placing this at the start of an unrelated article makes you come off as one of the butthurt Mexican fans/trolls from Goal.com. Assuming that this is your job, please try to act like a professional.

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