A 12-Pack With…. Alexi Lalas
Planting the Seed of Soccer Across America: Danny Beerseed
Alexi Lalas is a former U.S. National Team defender (96 caps), appearing in two World Cups and was U.S. Soccer's Male Player of the Year in 1995. Lalas was the first American to play in Italy in the modern-era and then returned to the United States to be a part of the group of high profile American soccer players to launch Major League Soccer. He's now an on-air commentator for ESPN.
Needless to say he's got an impressive soccer résumé and today he's answering our questions as a part of our "12-Pack" Interview Series.
Free Beer Movement: You were the first American in the modern-era to play in Italy. It was a time when very few Americans played abroad. What was it like to live and play there?
Alexi Lalas: I became a better player and a better person through the experience. At the time, Serie A was the biggest league in the world which meant that every Sunday I was facing world-class strikers. Adapting to the language, culture and the fishbowl that is soccer over there was not always easy but it gave me a life experience that still pays dividends to this day.
From a soccer perspective, it was incredible to see the tactical detail that is part of the Italian soccer DNA. The way we trained and prepared, and especially the way we organized defensively, was something I had never seen before. It made me look at the game and my position in a different way. It’s too bad that more Americans haven’t had the opportunity to pay in Italy, but Serie A has changed a lot and it’s no longer the league it once was.
FBM: What is it like to suit up for the National Team; to wear your country's colors? Explain that to some who will never get to have that experience.
AL: It’s hard to explain without using clichés. I believe that the inherent patriotism of Americans is fundamental to who we are. It’s often ridiculed or misunderstood, especially from the outside. But I think it’s the one of the characteristics that helps define us and helps unite us.
So when you’re given the opportunity, even through sport, to represent your country, you’re also representing everything that it stands for. I always took pride in that honor and responsibility. From the jersey, to the anthem to the performance, for me, it was ultimately about being an American and soccer was simply the vehicle.
FBM: What's your best memory playing for the U.S. National Team?
AL: World Cup 1994 changed my life. I lived the power of what a World Cup can do to an individual. It gave me credibility, opened doors and enabled me to have a career in soccer.
The win over Colombia at the Rose Bowl in front of 100K people will always be special. It was one of those “moments” that I’ll never forget.
FBM: In 1996 you returned to the U.S. to play for the New England Revolution and help break ground for Major League Soccer. What was it like to be a part of the early days of the league and resurrected professional soccer in America?
AL: MLS in the early days was like the Wild West, on and off the field. We were often making it up as we went along. But I think we made many more good than bad decisions.
One of the proudest moments of my life is being a part of the start of MLS and I think it will remain a source of pride when I’m old and grey. I’ve said it before, MLS is like la Cosa Nostra, it’s our thing. It’s not perfect, but it means everything to me.
FBM: This summer's World Cup was a watershed moment for American soccer in terms of how it broke through into the mainstream, if just for a few days, following the Algeria match. Where does American soccer go from here? How do we build on that moment? Not only the National Team, but the domestic league as well?
AL: We just keep chuggin’ along. I know we’re all looking for that magic bullet, and a successful World Cup certainly helps. But the success of soccer in the U.S. is going to come from a series of moments, some bigger than others, from which we continually step up to another level.
Sometimes we kick ourselves for what we have yet to achieve, but we also have to pat ourselves on the back for how far we’ve come in a relatively short period of time. We’ve got a long way to go and there are many things we need to improve, but I don’t think that any other country could have grown the sport as fast as we have.
FBM: You're a quality, but colorful commentator for ESPN. How are you enjoying your time at the World Wide Leader in Sports?
AL: Love it. I recognize that I’m in the entertainment business and I make no bones about it. My job is to be informative and entertaining. Finding the proper balance is what makes you good and finding it consistently is what makes you great. I’m not there yet, but I think I’m getting better. I’m paid to have an opinion, people don’t always agree with me, but that’s part of what makes it interesting and why I watch sports. I try to be objective and fair without losing the passion and energy that I think is needed to do this job. Hopefully I can keep doing it for many years.
FBM: Continuing on the topic of ESPN. Your network has gotten a bad rap for its perceived hostility towards soccer in the past, but with stepped up coverage of the English Premier League and, obviously, their phenomenal coverage of the World Cup this summer. Is that criticism misplaced? What about their coverage of Major League Soccer, though?
AL: You should always expect more from ESPN, we’re the “world-wide leader in sports”. But it it’s also a business and I think we all understand that soccer doesn’t yet generate the revenue that the other sports do.
This summer, for the first time, we gave the American public a World Cup that wasn’t dumbed down or diluted. We were inclusive and respected the fact that many people were watching simply for the event, but we didn’t hold people’s hands. This actually gave the World Cup more relevancy and credibility even for the casual viewer because it mirrored the way that other major sports are broadcast.
MLS is a problem. I’ll be honest; the MLS rating need to improve. We have to find a way to translate the excitement that we see in many markets to viewership. I know the proverbial chicken and egg argument about marketing/promotion and it’s legitimate, but we can’t simply look to ESPN to solve the problem; MLS has to figure out a way to make the league, the games and the players more relevant to the general public.
FBM: You spoke at the first-ever American Outlaws Rally in Las Vegas in March. What role do fans like the Outlaws play in the support of the team and the growth of the game here?
AL: It’s not lip service when I say that supporter’s groups like The American Outlaws are as important, and in many cases more so, than any of us who ever kicked a ball. They have sustained and nourished our sport through the lean years and, thanks in large part to the new media explosion, are starting to be real influencers.
I often talk about the soccer army that has been amassing over the years and now has started to come above ground. The battle has only just begun, but I like our odds. The soccer culture is unique and it is enticing to a generation that sees soccer as a legitimate American sport and not just a niche activity. The supporter’s groups are a big reason why the sport has survived, and an even bigger reason why it will thrive.
FBM: Do you ever give you brother, (MLSSoccer.com and Goal.com writer) Greg, a hard time for having a more successful soccer career than him?
AL: All the time. I routinely break him down until he’s a sniveling, broken shell of human being. Then I pump him back up and do it all over again…it’s really quite amusing. But I really do love him and he's 10 times the writer that I’ll ever be (but don’t tell him I said that).
FBM: You were famous for rocking some pretty epic facial hair during your playing career. What led to the decision to lose it? Too much for MLS boardrooms? Will it ever make a return, like a some sort-of band reunion tour?
AL: In 2000 I was in Sydney, Australia working the Olympics. On one of the last nights my girlfriend and I hit the town hard. We returned to the hotel and one thing led to another, I never back down from a dare from a beautiful woman. Now it should be noted that my then-girlfriend has since become my wife and mother to my children. Ah, the things we do for love.
As far a return of the goatee; maybe when we host another World Cup. It’ll be like when Cher recently sported her 1980’s era “Turn Back Time” outfit on the MTV Awards. I’m a sucker for nostalgia.
FBM: When you're not on camera what's your beer of choice?
AL: Guinness. Like a Porsche, there is no substitute.
FBM: 1994 U.S. World Cup jerseys.... ugliest shirts ever? What did you think back then?
AL: Yes, but also, I suppose, the most memorable. I think there was this notion that faux denim would be the next big fashion craze and that we would have been ahead of the curve…not so much. The fact that we were able to succeed in spite of our horrendous attire is a testament to our team.
I’ll never forget the first time Bora (USMNT coach "Bora" Milutinović) saw the jersey, the man speaks 5 languages and he still couldn’t find the words to express his complete and utter disbelief. Of course it could have been worse; it could have actually been real denim!
Many thanks to Alexi for taking the time to answer our 12-pack of questions. We leave you all, dear readers, with Alexi's 1997 appearance on an ESPN SportsCenter commercial:
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