Alexi Lalas joined First Division newcomer Padova in 1994 and became the first American to play in the Italian Serie A. He soon became the first American to score in the Serie A and ultimately he helped Padova beat the odds to maintain its top-tier standing.
But the second season went poorly for the red-haired defender from Michigan. Lalas hasn't played since Nov. 26.
So the final milestone of Lalas' Italian adventure comes Feb. 26, the day Lalas returns to the United States, where he will join MLS team New England Revolution. "I would have loved to have ended it by scoring 20 goals and riding off into the sunset," Lalas said, "but I'm proud of everything I've done here. I'm proud of every day I've been here.
"I'm a better soccer player now and the experience has also made me a better person. It's an experience I'll have with me for the rest of my life."
As Lalas leaves, Padova sits in the relegation zone. After surviving last season by winning a penalty-kick shootout in a playoff with Genoa, the small club sold three starters. Their inexperienced replacements floundered.
"Then they're surprised when things go bad, and they look at the foreigner," said Lalas, who played in 33 of 34 games during the 1994-95 season. "The good thing is the amount of support I've gotten from the fans, teammates and press. `Why isn't he playing,' is what they ask. Basically, this is all about one person's [coach Mauro Sandreani] opinion."
When Lalas was benched, Padova was in last place with only one win and two ties in 11 games. Since then, Padova has played .500 ball to move into a tie for 15th place in the 18-team league, only three points out of the relegation zone.
Sandreani has chosen to go with the club's other foreigners -- a pair of Dutchmen, Michel Kreek and Leonard Van Utrecht, and Croatian striker Zoran Vlaovic.
Lalas, who played all four Gold Cup games with the U.S. to up his cap total to 67, says that at least the lack of playing time has given him some rest. Padova wanted him to stay until the season's end, but Lalas wanted to join the Revolution as soon as possible.
"This part of my adventure is over," Lalas said. "Now I'm embarking on a new adventure, it just happens to be in my own country."
-- Mike Woitalla