“It’s just perfect for my family here,” a smiling, baseball-capped Alexi Lalas told FIFA.com as he arrived for an exclusive interview not 50 metres from Manhattan Beach, in the south of Los Angeles.
The ginger-haired, guitar-playing former centre-half, who made his name at the 1994 FIFA World Cup USA™, has called this part of the world home for the last few years. Following a spell as general manager of Los Angeles Galaxy, which ended in August 2008, the dedicated family man now spends his time championing the domestic game and offering his views as a star pundit for ESPN.
The MLS’s most staunch advocate, having passionately supported its development since its inaugural season in 1996, Lalas has packed a lot into his eventful career, one that took off when the greatest footballing show on Earth came to the States two years prior to that landmark date.
Thanks for the memories
“I’m living proof of the impact the World Cup can have on someone. It changed my life,” said the self-styled showman, who, with his flowing locks and rock-star beard, epitomised the carefree attitude of a spirited side that held its own against the world’s best, despite the USA’s lack of a professional domestic league.
“If it hadn’t have been for that summer, I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you now,” added Lalas, who started all four of the host nation’s games that summer. “It opened a whole lot of doors for me. It showed me that if you can get your timing right and take the opportunities that come your way, then you can achieve big things, even if you’re not the most talented of players.”
One door that opened up for Lalas after USA 1994 was Serie A. In signing on the dotted line for Padova later that year, he became the first American footballer to play in Italy and went on to make 33 appearances in his first spell with the club, scoring three goals in all, one of them against Inter Milan.
“Along with the World Cup, that’s the highlight of my footballing career,” said the man who was named US Soccer Athlete of the Year in 1995. “I was proud to be the first. I opened the way and when I see Michael Bradley at Chievo today, nearly 20 years later, I say to myself that I achieved something pretty amazing. More than anything, I became a better person there, and that’s what really counts for me.”
After just nine months in calcio the pioneering central defender embarked on an exciting new challenge at New England Revolution in the recently founded MLS. Teething problems delayed the start of the new league by a year, giving Lalas time to make a brief return on loan to Padova before MLS finally roared into action in 1996. A decade and a half on, he has fond memories of his involvement in its early days: “Coming back for the start of the new league was a big risk, but I’m very proud I did it.”
After turning out for a number of clubs in the years that followed and making the USA squad for France 1998, where he sat the tournament out on the bench, Lalas took a two-year sabbatical before ending his playing career at Los Angeles Galaxy.
A move into general management then followed, with Lalas taking charge at San Jose Earthquakes, then Red Bull New York and finally the Galaxy. Since his association with the LA outfit came to an end, however, he has remained out of the game.
“I’ve no regrets and I had some fantastic experiences,” he said reflecting on those four incident-packed years, in which he dealt with takeovers and witnessed the David Beckham phenomenon at first hand. “I made some mistakes and I learned a lot, and it taught me to have a different perspective on things. In my job as a commentator it’s helped understand decisions that maybe the fans can’t.
“I’m proud of what I did when I was president,” he added, reflecting on his role upstairs with the Galaxy. “The club’s DNA needed changing and it needed a new identity after Beckham’s arrival, a process that I worked on. The Galaxy had to change the way it was seen by the people of America and the world too.”
Behind the mic
An MLS Cup winner with the Los Angeles side in 2002, Lalas is enjoying life as a football pundit, offering his expert views on MLS and football around the world: “I love the opportunity it gives me to have fun and express myself. I take it seriously but I enjoy it too. It’s a job I love doing.”
Though he spends three weeks a month at ESPN’s studios in Connecticut, on the other side of the country, Lalas is content with his work-life balance: “This new job is less stressful for my family and I get to spend more time with them now.”
A former singer and guitarist with the rock band Gypsies, he also has more time to devote to music, his other great passion and a constant in his life: “I did tours and recorded albums, and they were huge opportunities for me. But even though that’s all behind me now, I still play and record stuff at home. Music’s in me. I was born with it.”