Alexi Lalas: The Least Understood Man in American Soccer

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There is no one that polarizes the lower tier soccer community more than Alexi Lalas. His detractors see him as a figurehead for the establishment, a member of the media in an ivory tower, an out of touch ex-USMNT player. But beyond all, his haters see him as a troll. His fans value his honesty, ability to laugh at himself and situations, and, most of all, his outspoken nature. If the man has an opinion, he expresses it. But he’s more than both of these polarized views, because, of course, he’s a human being.

At Protagonist, the staff old enough to remember his playing career love him for his hot headed style of play and those flowing red locks. The younger generation are more mixed, having grown up watching Alexi on TV as a journalist. When we reached out to him for this interview, we found him charming, amicable, and willing to participate. We asked him questions about lower league soccer, USL rebranding, and the USMNT. His responses show insight and perspective. We appreciate Mr. Lalas’ participation and hope our readers will approach this with an open mind.

First of all, when we asked if you’d consider answering some questions for our site, you said you “weren’t sure how much you had to offer.” Is that because you don’t have opinions on lower league soccer, or because you aren’t informed on the subject, or is there a third option?

No, it was simply a recognition and admission that, while I follow lots of soccer, there are leagues (domestic and international) that I spend more time covering than others. As far as opinion, I’m in the business of opinion. So fire away. 

What role do you see the amateur levels of soccer playing in the American system?

Fourfold: 1. Developing talent and providing opportunities for domestic players who aren’t ready for the perceived “higher level” yet. 2. Providing a gateway and entrance to the culture and game for markets that can’t be covered by other existing leagues or markets that are inadequately covered by other existing leagues. 3. Challenging the established leagues by attempting to build an alternative to traditional higher levels...and competing for attention. 4. Provide fun, social interaction, and community connections via a sport that is more diverse, inclusive and global than any other. 

What do you think of the rebranding and reformation of the USL system?

I think they are trying to build a better mousetrap and I support and applaud anyone trying to do that. Soccer is still relatively new and Wild West in structure in America. This means it is fraught with peril but also ripe with opportunity. “Brand” is not a dirty word and the image you project is important in shaping perception. USL was smart in seeing around the corner with their established connection, affiliation and partnerships with MLS. Having said that, I think they are also looking at the size of the market and rightly seeing that the soccer customer is often undeserved or looking for something different. If they are strategic I think they can position themselves as simply another league rather than a lower league. That is the challenge. But regardless, the new structure and branding signifies a departure and evolution from the past which I think was smart to do. 

According to your wikipedia, you never played in the lower leagues in the United States, but I’m confident they didn’t exist when you retired from playing. Would you have considered playing at a lower level soccer club in the United States if that had been an option?

100%. Although I played in plenty of ethnic leagues growing up, the current system would have been something that would have appealed to someone like me who was coming out of Michigan (not a hotbed of soccer) and someone who had limited options in term of a professional soccer career. Sports, like life, is often about timing as much as it is about talent. I was fortunate to be at the right place at the right time at various points in my career. Right before I was called into the National Team a few years before the 1994 WC I came very close to playing professional indoor soccer simply because that was the only option I had. The Soccer Gods intervened and fate sent me down a different road. But the level of competition and amount of options have increased substantially since then and this generation has many more opportunities. 

Let’s talk Open Cup for a second. Some of your fellow journalists have strong opinions about the competition (obviously Taylor Twellman comes to mind). What are your thoughts on what the Open Cup is and should be?

It’s easy to say throw more money at something in a genuine attempt to fix it…especially when it’s not your money. But the Open Cup is always going to mean more to certain players, teams and leagues regardless of how much money is involved. I like the CCL carrot that was added and I believe that the lower seed should always host. Of course increasing prize money will make it more attractive, but unless it’s a ridiculous amount it will still be seen as a burden to some. BTW, when we look at the Open Cup concept in other countries in an attempt to emulate, it should be noted that the romance and excitement has eroded there with time due the financial and competitive priority placed on League or International competition. All of that is to say that I don’t have the answer, because there is no quick fix. 

Is the Open Cup an asset or a liability for USSF?

I think it is an asset but it is a property that certainly needs to improve. I think it needs a fresh set of eyes. In the same way that government isn’t always the best at managing projects, maybe the answer is to outsource it from USSF to the private sector as see if someone can turn it into something more relevant. 

I don’t think there’s a more hated American soccer pundit on TV. How does that feel/effect you on a daily basis? Does it ever get under your skin? 

Wait, what? What have you heard? Listen, it comes with the territory. I resolved long ago to speak my mind and I don’t apologize for doing my job of being opinionated. If everybody likes you, you probably aren’t doing your job. Of course nobody wants to be criticized, but I think there has to be a part of you that kind of enjoys it. A masochistic side. Hurts so good. Kind of a punk ethos of stepping on stage and inviting and bathing in the spit, beer and vitriol from the crowd. I’m sure a good shrink could explain it all. But I am a father and a husband and who I am in in that private context is often very different from the public persona. I readily admit that am a performer and entertainer, but that doesn’t mean that what I say isn’t genuine, authentic or truthful. But you have to have a thick skin in this business or else it will eat you alive. As the Aesop’s fable about the miller, son and the ass taught us: If you spend all your time trying to please everyone, you’ll may end up pleasing no one at all. 

Which profession brought you more flak? Journalist or soccer player?

Probably my work in media because of the instant information age and rapid proliferation of things that one does and says. I often meet people who have a hard time reconciling the player persona with the media persona. The thing is, they didn’t really know me then, and they don’t know me now. 

Has anyone ever threatened you beyond mean tweets?

There have been some things over the years. 

When you played for USMNT, you were seen as a bad boy on a team of bad boys. Do you think that reputation has shaped the public perceptions of you as a sportscaster? And, secondarily, do you think that persona (you had as a player) has shaped your approach to your second profession?

I certainly cultivated an image as a player. I understood the value of personal “branding” early on, which came from the music side of how I saw artists and bands promoting themselves. The hair, guitar and playing style was simply the costume, tools and act of a performer. But once again, it was authentic in that I was comfortable in the persona I inhabited. When I went into media I purposely tweaked my image and obviously the platform for giving my opinion on many more topics expanded dramatically. 

The USMNT is in a major rebuilding phase, has any of these friendlies mattered, considering there isn’t a permanent head coach?

I think it matters in the minutes that may (or may not) be given to the young and less experienced players who I think will ultimately guide this team forward. But the lack of a coach is problematic and it has gotten old. 

Is there any hiring that could satisfy the USMNT fan base at this point?

No. The American soccer fans are never satisfied, because we all want different things and all have different ideas about how to get them. We wear our insecurities on our sleeve and our inferiority complex is legendary. But we own it and recognize it. I think it’s to be expected given our unique culture and history. It’s La Cosa Nostra…"our thing"…warts and all. 

Why can’t the United States generate a legit world-class striker?

We may already have. But maybe that player never got the opportunity...for any number of reasons. If say, Brian Ching had been born in Europe and had been the exact same player, maybe he could have been someone like Robert Lewandowski. But don’t worry, it’ll happen. We love to kick ourselves for what we haven’t done, but sometimes we have to pat ourselves on the back for what we have done. The growth of the game over the last 25 years in the US, on and off the field, has been unprecedented relative to other countries and other sports. We’ve come a long way baby…but we still have a ways to go. 

Image courtesy of 21 Century Fox.

Lola Vaughn