Alexi Lalas, One-on-One: On '94 fame, embracing 'American' and why the USMNT will win a World Cup
FOURFOURTWO: Perhaps soccer in America, and with our national team, went from childhood into adolescence during Bruce Arena's first tenure as U.S. head coach. Are we getting closer to adulthood?
AL: I think so. I think Bruce is reveling in this moment, because I think there's some unfinished business. I think he looks at the person and the coach he was in 2002, where we know that is the pinnacle in terms of what the U.S. has done in a World Cup, and he's so much better of a coach now and has learned so much over those years, that I think he is licking his chops to get another bite at that apple, if you will, with what I think is a very, very good team, and one that can do some damage.
If and when Bruce qualifies the team [for Russia 2018], we will thank him for righting the ship, but it's not as if he will have done anything that anybody didn't expect or that hasn't been done before. We’re not going to get carried away with it. ... He came in to fix the situation, he fixed the situation, but that's only the first part of the equation.
Now it's doing well in the World Cup. Getting to the World Cup's no longer an accomplishment, and getting out of the [first-stage] group is no longer really an accomplishment. Now it's, ‘so how far can you take us?’ And regardless of [which opponents] are pulled out of those bowls in [the World Cup draw come] December, it would be a failure not to go on, given the talent that Bruce Arena has, the depth that Bruce Arena has, and where we are as a soccer-playing nation at this point.
FFT: In terms of developing talent, and what's going on from an academy standpoint, how do you think we are doing?
AL: I think we're actually doing relatively well, considering a couple of factors. First and foremost, I don't think we’re at the point now where talent is slipping through the cracks. I think that if you are good, eventually there is enough of a network where you will be seen. And I'm not saying that there's not a couple of players who will go off and do good things and maybe weren't recognized, but that happens everywhere, OK?
I don't think that there's all this talent that's out there, underground and slipping through cracks in the way that it maybe was before. And even before, I'm not sure it's as much as was believed. It’s a nice way to talk about it, because it mitigates some of the problems that we have.
Now the second part of it is that our country is unique, in the makeup and the geography and just the actual size. And I think that that's where the biggest challenge is when it comes to development, this recognition that while our diversity as a country is what makes us great, [it's also] our biggest challenge. Because we have this diversity, it means that we have this diversity of thought in terms of what soccer is. You go ask Americans what is beautiful soccer, you're going to get a bunch of different answers.
That can at times be incredibly challenging when you are trying to [build] a team, because recognizing and articulating a way that you want to play means that at times people aren't going to fit into that. So while as a country we pride ourselves on being inclusive, in terms of developing teams and developing players, you actually might have to look at being more exclusive.
I know that when you say that, it means that some very, very good players might not fit into development situations and systems that we put in place, and that scares the bejesus out of Americans because the worst thing in the world is when we have talent that goes unrealized. But that's something that we have to think about.
It's unique to America, and I don't think that there's an answer necessarily, but I think it is fascinating to see how we go about doing it, given the incredible diversity of thought that we have with regards to what the game is and what it should be. I don't know what the American way of playing is.
FFT: Do you believe we'll win a World Cup in your lifetime?
AL: Yes, I do. I mean, we talk about 2002, and we're a handball away from going to the semifinal. I think we have certainly the history, we have the talent, but any team, whether it's Brazil or the U.S. or anybody else, you need a little luck here and there. And that's just the way that it goes.
While it would warm the cockles of my red-headed heart to win a World Cup next summer, it wouldn't surprise me. I know people think it's impossible. No, nothing's impossible, all right? Or everything's impossible, I guess, until somebody does it. And then you say, ‘“Well, I thought it was impossible.’” Well, it's not.
Incredible things can happen. I'm not saying we run to Vegas right now and put all our money on the U.S. winning the World Cup next summer, but it's not out of the realm of possibility for the United States men's team to win a World Cup.