I had an interesting and intriguing interview with Mr. Lalas last August for my column at AC Cugini. Please take a look at the penultimate response.
Calcio Connection is very pleased to welcome Mr. Alexi Lalas, who is one of the most respected, recognized, and prominent soccer players in North American history. Mr. Lalas was a graduate of Rutgers University, where he was an All-American. His first international appearance for the US Team occurred in 1991. He competed in two Olympiads, two World Cups, along with a Copa America. He is the only American to have competed in the Italian Serie A. (Since equalled by Giuseppe Rossi and Gabriel Ferrari of Parma and Sampdoria, respectively). Mr. Lalas was a defender by position, and is the first former American player to become a President and General Manager of an MLS franchise: San Jose in 2004-2005, New York Red Bulls in 2005-2006, and now with the Los Angeles Galaxy.
• President and General Manager of three Major League Soccer (MLS) franchises.
• 96 international appearances for the United States Men’s National Team.
• In 1995, he played two games for Padova and the US National Team in the span of 24 hours.
• Competed at the 1992 Barcelona Olympiad and at the 1996 Atlanta Olympiad.
• Competed at World Cup USA 94 and World Cup 98 in France.
• 1995 US Soccer Athlete of the Year.
• Five all-star appearances during his seven year MLS career.
• The only American to play in the Serie A: 1994 to 1996 with Padova Calcio.
• MLS Cup Champion in 2002 with the LA Galaxy.
• 2001 US Open Cup champion.
• 2000 CONCACAF Champions Cup winner.
• Soccer color commentary for ABC, ESPN, ESPN2, and NBC.
• Member of the Board of Advisors for the US Soccer Federation’s Grant Committee and the Athlete’s Council.
• Served on the Board of Advisors for the FIFA Women’s World Cup.
• Member of the national advisory board for Positive Coaching Alliance.
Steve Amoia: You played varsity soccer at Rutgers, and were an All-American. What were your childhood roots in soccer? I know that you grew up in the Detroit area, and also played hockey. But how did you become interested in soccer?
Alexi Lalas: I grew up in the suburbs of Detroit and I did everything that all the kids do today. Mom and Dad coaching, orange peels & juice boxes at halftime and weekend tournaments. My father is Greek and we also spent time living in Athens where I played pickup soccer down on the corner. Most of my adolescence was spent playing soccer, hockey and music.
(SA) Padova and the Serie A. If I recall, you learned Italian rather quickly, which endeared you to the people of Padova. You also played all 34 games in your first season, and scored three goals. Was the transition easier or more difficult due to your excellent performance during World Cup USA 1994? Did you feel extra pressure being the first North American to play in that illustrious league, and how were you treated by teammates and opponents initially?
(AL) I lived the power of what a World Cup can do to an individual. It certainly gave me a level of credibility, but it also increased expectations. I was acutely aware of my responsibility as an American player. I wanted to leave a good impression, on and off the field. Learning Italian was about respecting the culture and wanting to assimilate as quickly as possible. I didn’t speak perfectly, but Italians appreciated the fact that I took the time to learn. For a while I was a curiosity because of my looks and personality, but eventually my teammates and the community in Padova really embraced me. The key was that I played well, and that will endear you to any Italian, regardless of what you look like.
(SA) Was it a culture shock to live in a country where soccer was a passionate part of the daily fabric of life? If I remember a quote by your former teammate, Tony Meola, correctly, he stated that, “If we were playing against Italy, my father would cheer for the Azzurri.” ;-)
(AL) I am a better player and person because of my experience in Italy. To live in the fishbowl that is Italian soccer is not easy and I learned perspective and how to handle myself, on and off the field. The passion for the game is something that is difficult to explain to the American sports fans. I always said that it’s no coincidence that only two things happen on Sunday in Italy, soccer and church. It is a form of religion and it is taken just as seriously.
(SA) In terms of training methods, tactics, and player development, how would you describe the Italian system during your time with Padova? Can you compare and contrast that philosophy with what you were exposed to before and after your Italian experience?
(AL) Tactics, tactics, tactics. Padova was a small team and we know that our success rested in our ability to be tactically better than the big teams. We were drilled every day as to where we should be on the field in any given situation. If you’re a small team, you hedge your bets with this approach; if everyone is in a good position then it will take a feat of individual skill to really beat you.
(SA) Our AC Cugini audience might not know about one of your incredible feats. You played a game with Padova against Genoa. It was a very important game because relegation was on the line. After winning the game, you immediately flew across the Atlantic to appear in a US National Team match against Nigeria. Please tell us your motivations behind this tremendous accomplishment?
(AL) It was a blur. We beat Genoa to stay in Serie A and then I flew immediately to Boston and played against Nigeria. My only regret was that I didn’t get to go back to Padova for the party! For Padova to stay in Serie A was an incredible feat and to do it in a one-game playoff was something that was historic. I remember after the Nigeria game going back to my hotel room and sleeping for the next day and a half.
(SA) What are some of your fondest memories from your long association with our National Team program?
(AL) Traveling the world and loving every minute of it. It was a great life: Playing soccer on the field and raising hell off it. I saw the world, learned languages, made a couple bucks and milked it for all it was worth. The ’94 World Cup will always be special, it was such a thrill to be a part of something that changed the way Americans see soccer.
(SA) You played many games in our country under “hostile” environments. Especially games involving our neighbors to the south, Mexico. As a player, did this treatment provide extra incentive to beat a respected rival such as Mexico, or did it anger you and your teammates?
(AL) I always loved it when the crowd was screaming, for or against me. It was a sign of respect. I got off on it and it fed me. We played against England in Wembley and I got booed every time I touched the ball, how cool is that! In Mexico and Costa Rica they had signs about my mother and wife, the fact that they took the time to do that made me laugh. It’s all entertainment and I always considered myself as an entertainer, sometimes the hero and sometimes the villain.
(SA) Now that you are in management, what are the qualities that you look for in a player to join the Galaxy? Does the Galaxy have a youth system in place?
(AL) We have a youth system that will start next year and is an essential part for any team to cultivate talent. A player for the Galaxy has to have personality on and off the field. I want men who aren’t afraid to have an opinion and express themselves. We have too many boys running around now, I’m dying for some character, not a clown, but someone who excites the fans, on and off the field.
(SA) American players have featured in prominent European leagues. In your opinion, why hasn’t another North American played in the Serie A?
(AL) I thought I left a good impression, but I guess I must have scorched the earth! I think that many Americans could have success in Italy, but it takes a team taking a public risk. We still don’t have enough international credibility, which is a shame. If I were a manager in Italy, I would definitely bring a bunch of Americans over. They’re cheap, they work hard and they learn very quickly. Maybe I can take over Padova and bring them back to glory with this philosophy!
Alexi, thank you very much for your contribution to our column. Continued success with the Galaxy, and all the best wishes.
Author’s Note: A special thanks to Mr. Seth Burton, Communications Manager of the Los Angeles Galaxy, for his assistance with this interview.