SOCCER AMERICA: In the wake of the USA failing to qualify for the World Cup, can tell you us something that should make us feel optimistic about the future of American soccer?
ALEXI LALAS: I know there are those who want to burn down “the system” and I can understand that reaction. But there are generations of men and women who work their ass off to coach, scout, ref, organize and support soccer for little to no money, praise or recognition.
The U.S. system is far from perfect and maybe some of it should be torn down, but 20-30 years later it’s night and day better. No one should ever want to start from scratch and go back to the wasteland it was. But American soccer really isn’t about a system, tournament, league, business, association or club. It’s about people.
The American soccer community is unique and was born fighting for every ounce of respect and attention. The American soccer community is knowledgeable, discerning, passionate and committed. The American soccer community built us and will fix us.
If you had a magic wand to improve American soccer, how would you use it?
I suppose I’d create a landscape devoid of traditional American sports and see what soccer could be in that environment. Or I’d simply wave the wand and remove the seemingly engrained inferiority complex and insecurity that American soccer often has about itself.
What do you think the interest in the 2018 World Cup will be like in the USA despite the USA not qualifying?
I think the U.S., maybe more so than any country, is set up to care about a men’s World Cup without the home team. The diversity and multi-cultural aspect of our country means there are lots of folks who will be tuning to watch their teams, or even their adopted teams. We’ve always said that there are plenty of soccer fans in the U.S., but not necessarily enough fans of U.S. soccer. I also think the U.S. audience understands and respects that the World Cup is a huge party and will want to check it out. I think many will be pleasantly surprised by the interest.
If you could make a rule change in soccer, would you make one and what would it be?
I’d make the handling law much simpler and clearer. If it hits your arm or hand, then it’s a foul. No more talk of deliberate, hand-to-ball/ball-to-hand, natural vs. unnatural position or intent. If that means players must, at times, play with their arms behind their back (which many already do anyway), then so be it. If a player is good enough to intentionally hit the ball off an opponent’s arm/hand, then so be it.
Do your children play soccer? If so, what you think of the youth soccer scene? Is it a lot different than you were a kid playing soccer? Do you give advice?
I have two kids. The youth soccer scene is so much better than when I was growing up. The coaching, facilities and organization have improved dramatically. I don’t say a word when watching my kids.
I’m glad they are active and enjoy sports, but I take much more pride when they read a book than when they score a goal. I’ve never pressured them to play and I don’t care if they like soccer. I believe that the things you love will find you. The only youth soccer advice I ever give is this: If you’re the best player on your team, then find a better team.
Rob Stone and Alexi Lalas
What’s most enjoyable and most difficult about TV analyst work?
I’ve always loved to perform. I’ve always considered myself a performer and an entertainer, on the field or on TV. But that doesn’t mean my performance isn’t authentic, genuine and honest. What you see on TV is only the tip of the iceberg. The work that is done before in order to give context and depth to a performance is essential, but goes unseen.
The most difficult part of TV is the lack of time. You have to be able to edit yourself beforehand and in real-time. You have to be able to give a concise take that is both entertaining and informative, sometimes in 10-15 seconds.
I have the greatest job in the world and I love it. I’m often asked would I be interested in coaching or going back to front office work? Truth is, I don’t want to do anything else. I come across so many people in my business who are just passing through. They are using TV as a weigh-station until something better comes along. You can get away with that for a while but I believe that eventually it will manifest itself in your performance and you will be cheating yourself and the viewer.
I’m a junkie for TV and I want to be around others that are equally as committed and invested.
Have you ever had an embarrassing moment or blooper during TV work?
I’ve messed up every way there is to mess up. Still do. Wrong name, wrong team, wrong word, wrong camera. Like anything, you get better with time. I see our performance as a conversation that the viewer is listening in on. They aren’t eavesdropping but they’re not directly participating. They need to be acknowledged at different times. Mistakes are always going to happen. But I’ve found that a show is never as bad (or good) as you think it is.
In the USA’s famous 2-1 win over Colombia at the 1994 World Cup, you scored a goal that was wrongly nullified by a bad offside call. After the game you said, “Twenty years from now, I’ll roll the tape for my kids and stop it just before the call. I’ll say, ‘Oh, yeah. I scored in that famous ’94 game. They’ll never know.” It’s been more than 20 years and you’re a father. Did you show your kids how you scored at a World Cup?
Ha! Actually my kids know very little of the person and player that I was. They have seen some pictures and simply roll their eyes at the way I looked. My past has done very little to make me any cooler in their eyes. Maybe someday I’ll show them that “goal”… but I still doubt it will make me cool.
What’s the favorite goal you scored for the USA that did count?
In 1993, I scored vs. England. It was huge because of the opponent and it was the start of much more playing time. It kind of put me on the map. [Coach] Bora [Milutinovic] was so happy for me and recognized the significance more than I did. I became a regular starter after that and I never looked back.
You played on the U.S. national team that reached the second round of the 1994 World Cup and finished fourth at the 1995 Copa America. How would you compare the talent on that team to recent national teams?
I think we were less talented but I think we had more character, personality and leadership. I know that’s a grumpy old guy answer. Get off my lawn … again.
Your last album (“Shots!”) came out in 2016. How often do you perform live?
It’s rare nowadays, but I’d like to do some more when the new album comes out next year (2018).
If someone wanted to familiarize themselves with your music, which three songs which would you recommend they start with?
Before the 1994 World Cup, you and your band The Gypsies released the album, “Woodland.” You said at the time, “Even if no one buys it, I’m real proud of it.” How did it sell?
I think it went tin. I want to thank all three people who bought it … including my Mom.
What musicians or bands have influenced most, would you say?
Bands like ABBA, Beatles, Zeppelin, Ratt, Def Leppard, Bon Jovi, Van Halen, AC/DC, Kiss, GnR, Duran Duran, Air Supply, Bowie, ‘Til Tuesday, The Psychedelic Furs, Rick Springfield, Hall & Oates, Loverboy, Foreigner, Eddie Money, Bryan Adams, Pat Benatar, John Mellencamp, Black Crowes, Tom Petty, Neil Young, Billy Joel, The Lemonheads, Crowded House, Jellyfish, Robbie Williams … and a hundred more.
Favorite soccer movies?
“Victory.” There is only one.
World Cup Memories
Mexico 1986 -- First World Cup I ever watched. I was 16 and staying at a Holiday Inn in Colorado Springs for the Pikes Peak Invitational tournament. I remember watching Maradona’s “Hand of God” and “slalom” goals vs. England. I was fascinated by the strange but ubiquitous shadow that cast over the field at Azteca Stadium. Never thought I’d play there one day.
Italy 1990 -- I traveled to Italy with my high-school buddies. We saw the U.S. play Austria. We painted out faces, drank a lot of beer and had a blast. I had no clue I would be on the field four years later.
USA 1994 -- It changed my life forever. I lived the power of what a World Cup can do to an individual. It gave me opportunities, on and off the field, that I never would have had. I milked it for all it was worth, burned it at both ends and had the time of my life.
France 1998 -- It was a disaster and wasted opportunity. I regret few things in my life, but I regret the way I behaved in 1998. I hurt the sport I love.
Japan/South Korea 2002 -- I was playing for the Galaxy at the time and I remember getting up at night and watching. It was surreal because of the time and distance … but it was magical.
Germany 2006 -- I was the president of the Galaxy at the time. I remember when Jan Koller scored for Czech Republic in the 5th minute … I think we all knew the World Cup wasn’t going to end well.
South Africa 2010 -- South Africa was lots of fun and lots of work. I remember sitting every night at the bar with Bob Ley after our work day drinking red wine and eating a Greek salad. I love Bob Ley.
Brazil 2014 -- I’ll never forget our studio on Copacabana Beach after Brazil lost 1-7 to Germany in the semifinal. It was complete and utter shock and silence from the Brazilians working with us. There wasn’t even sadness, there was simply disbelief.