Alexi Lalas, One-on-One: On '94 fame, embracing 'American' and why the USMNT will win a World Cup
Alexi Lalas has been, in so many ways, the face of American soccer for the past 25 years. He leapt into the public consciousness during the 1994 World Cup, the most recognizable of the hometown heroes, thanks to his flowing red locks and goatee, and the central defender enjoyed a fine tournament as the U.S. advanced to the round of 16 from a difficult first-stage group.
He's been with us ever since, playing in Italy and then in Major League Soccer, with New England, the MetroStars, Kansas City and the LA Galaxy, serving as general manager with three MLS clubs, and as one of the premier figures in American television coverage of soccer.
It is for his work on the air that the younger generations of Americans know Lalas, who is prized for his outspoken analysis and for recognizing that a good part of his job is to entertain. With ESPN and now Fox Soccer, his voice has accompanied the rise of MLS and maturation of the U.S. men’s national team.
FourFourTwo caught up with Lalas to talk about his days on the soccer field, his moves into the front office and the broadcast booth, his musical career, and his thoughts on the evolution of the American game.
FOURFOURTWO: Let's go back to 2000, when you took a year off from playing in MLS and did color commentary on the San Jose Earthquakes television broadcasts. It was the first time I'd heard such pointed analysis for soccer on American TV. You were critical of things that needed criticizing, and in my view it was a huge moment in the evolution of how the sport is covered here. Your thoughts?
ALEXI LALAS: Well, very kind of you to say, if it is indeed true. I don't know. It certainly wasn't by design. 2000 was an interesting and strange but ultimately very important year for me. I took this sabbatical, if you will. We called it at the time ‘stepping aside.’ I had been burning it at both ends and just grinding for many, many years, and I came to the point where I woke up and said I have to stop. Not stop forever, but I knew I just couldn't keep doing that. Both on and off the field I was going 100 mph and really needed kind of a reset.
It gave me a year to kind of do some other things, including some TV and travel and, as is the case often with these stories, there's a girl involved. I chased who would become my wife out to California, ended up out there, and I was able to do a bunch of TV. Earthquakes, and also a weekly show on ESPN and the NBC Olympics in Australia. So it was three very different types of TV performances, but it really opened my eyes and gave me a really good introduction to what the business is, and I found that I really enjoyed it, and it was a wonderful way to kind of get a taste of what was to come.
How I went about giving my performance was no different than anything else. I recognized that I was in the entertainment business, even back then. I know what I enjoyed hearing from both a sports and entertainment perspective when it came to events, and I looked at any event – whether it was sports or entertainment – as the same thing. And I tried to have that be part of the performance that I gave. And that included at times being critical.
I recognized then and learned lessons then that I still take with me today, in terms of you have to be honest, and you can't pull your punches, and how you say something is as important as what you say. That doesn't mean it can't be honest, genuine and authentic in the way in which you go about giving that performance.
FFT: TV coverage of the sport has evolved much since then. What do you see?
AL: A couple of things. You mentioned seminal types of moments. I think of the 2010 World Cup. I was involved with ESPN in the broadcast of that, and we went into that wanting to make sure that we did the World Cup and the sport justice, but that we did it in a way that it hadn't been done before, in that there was a real recognition of, look, we're not explaining throw-ins and offside anymore.
It doesn't mean that we’re not inviting everyone into the tent, but we're not stopping the bus. We'll slow it down a little bit now and then, with the recognition that we're still an emerging soccer culture, but the way we went about it in 2010, I think, was a real important type of transition for the way that the sport is broadcast.
And since then – and to a certain extent before, but certainly since then – I think that there's been a real ownership of the game and the culture, warts and all. And we as a soccer-playing community and a family, and I'm as guilty as anybody else, we often have insecurities and inferiorities when it comes to how we view ourselves within the world of soccer.
I think from a television perspective, it was a real recognition that it's OK to be American, it's OK to recognize and celebrate the history that we do have, that some people either forget or just disregard, and to broadcast our game and to talk about our game in an American way.
That really doesn't even necessarily have to do with accents. It really has to do with much more of a personality and a character, and, yes, at times it's a chip on your shoulder. And in a non-apologetic type of way. And I think for a long time we apologized for what we weren't, as opposed to championing what we were and certainly at this point are.