Alexi Lalas, One-on-One: On '94 fame, embracing 'American' and why the USMNT will win a World Cup
FFT: So much happened for you in the early 1990s. What was that like?
AL: It was crazy. I milked it for all it was worth and had a blast doing it. And I burned it at both ends, both on and off the field, and took every opportunity that I could and saw incredible things. Traveled the world, had various experiences both playing and living in so many different places, and met so many different people.
And look, what it comes down to: The reason that I'm talking to you today, or any other interview I do, is rooted in the summer of 1994. My life changed in the summer of 1994. I lived the power of what a World Cup can do to an individual, and it opened so many different doors for me. That's why I love when World Cups come about, because I know that power and I love to see players be given that experience. If and when the United States gets the World Cup in 2026, I'm excited to see what player emerges on that stage in your own country and gets to experience that power.
FFT: I've got the “Woodland” album you gave me in '94 ...
AL: Oh my God. You and my mom.
FFT: How often do you play music these days?
AL: Every day. I'm sitting in front of a little studio I have at my house. I still write and record, and I'll put out a new album hopefully next summer, so right around the men's World Cup, when that kicks off. It's something I love, something I was doing before I was playing soccer, something I continue to do. It's a passion, and whether anybody listens to it or not is actually irrelevant to me. I love to write and to make music, and it's something I will continue to do.
FFT: Working with Bora Milutinovic in Southern California leading up to that World Cup, and you're experiences with the 1992 Olympic team, how greatly did that broaden your soccer education?
AL: It was an incredible summer, and I learned a tremendous amount from Bora Milutinovic. He can be incredibly frustrating. I love him because he changed my life and he believed in me when others didn't. And he came into my life at the perfect time. He made me think about myself and myself in the game in ways I'd never been asked to think about before. And he made me look at the game in different ways, and as, at that point, a 22-, 23-, 24-year old, it was the perfect moment.
For others, it was incredibly frustrating. And I'm not saying I wasn't frustrated at times by Bora, but there was a method to his madness. For a guy like me, with that lack of experience but with the confidence of the coach, it was just this perfect colliding of a couple of people in the perfect moment. And one that I, looking back on it, thoroughly needed.
FFT: As wonderful as was 1994, did you find any satisfaction from the 1998 World Cup?
AL: No satisfaction, but I don't think 2002 happens without '98. Now that's no reason to go out there and to have the disaster that was 1998, and it was a disaster, and I take both personal and collective responsibility for the way that it went. I regret very few things in my life, and when I look back at things I would have done differently, I think my actions and my behavior – I probably would have done some things differently.
And I can only speak for myself, but really what was the most disappointing for me was I felt that I had let soccer down. And I know that sounds a little weird, or disingenuous, but you have to understand that that group of players that started in the early '90s and went through '94, there was a recognition that our job went well beyond what we did on the field. We were those pioneers and those ambassadors, and we had a responsibility to the game.
If there was pressure in '94, it was to make sure that we didn't embarrass ourselves on this world stage, because it will reflect on soccer and American soccer. And I think we went out and we propelled the perception of American soccer by what we did in 1994, and then that platform four years later, we completely wasted it. And in some ways, we maybe hurt soccer. And to be associated with something that would hurt the game I love in the country that I love, that was devastating. And that was certainly disappointing.
FFT: It was such a different landscape before MLS. How would your group fare today with the current national team? How many of you could play for this national team?
AL: Oh, Scott, you're going to do this ... I believe that if you are successful, that you will be successful in any era. If Christian Pulisic was around back in 1994, he would be as important as he is today.
But I also believe that someone like Tab Ramos, who for me was a man out of time – he was too good for us, and it's a pity that if he'd been born 20 years later, it would be a very different type of conversation that we’re having. But having said that, I believe that good players are good players regardless of what era you put them in. Because they are able to adapt, they are able to recognize.
The advantages a player today has, we never had. So if you're going to take a player today and pull him back [to the 1990s], then he's not going to have all the advantages that he has today. But I still think they figure it out, in the same way that Tab Ramos could walk into the lineup right now with the national team.
It doesn't mean that we haven't improved, but it's all relative to the moment, as opposed to compare and contrast with previous times. An athlete is an athlete, in terms of the physical abilities and the mental abilities even more so, and I think they would adapt.
Now I will say that the landscape of soccer in the United States, it's night and day. I always say that I take great pride in the fact that there's a generation of soccer players today who have no clue what we went through back then, on and off the field. I don't want them to.
I look at that as success, that they are oblivious to the challenges that we had and the difficulties that we had. That, for me, is progress. That, for me, is evolution. I don't need them to be appreciative or respectful or anything like that. That really doesn't matter to me. I'm glad that they live in a time that they don't have to worry about the things we worried about back then. To me, that is success.