American soccer legend Alexi Lalas has served as one of the singular figures of his sport’s rapid growth within the borders of the United States over the last two decades. The Birmingham, Michigan native has participated at the NCAA, FIFA, Olympic, Italian Serie A and MLS levels of competition, as well as spending time in the front office and broadcasting wings of his chosen sport. Lalas is a soccer lifer and proud of it.
Last month, the 41-year-old Rutgers University alum sat down with ifollosports.com to discuss the current state of domestic soccer, his bullish opinion regarding the future of Major League Soccer, his educated takes on David Beckham and the status of the US national team. The interview took place at an AT&T sponsored event in Hollywood, two days prior to the LA Galaxy’s 1-0 victory over the Houston Dynamo in the 2011 MLS Cup.
Growth Of Soccer In The US
Lalas began the conversation by expressing how much the youth soccer landscape has changed in this country since the 1994 World Cup. The 1988 high school graduate noted that during his teenage years in Suburban Detroit, the idols he looked up to were hockey players and rock stars, not soccer players.
“I grew up in the typical suburban type environment, with mom and dad coaching and youth coaches and orange peels and juice boxes at halftime and all that good stuff. The first World Cup game I ever saw was in 1986 and I just saw the Final. Eight years later, I was playing in a World Cup, that’s the culture I was growing up in. I didn’t have soccer to watch on television, I didn’t have soccer players to emulate,” explained Lalas.
The former defender added, “I think people, especially the next generations from that ’94 generation, where the World Cup was held in the US, have not only discovered soccer, but also being an American soccer fan, it infects you as a culture, it informs the way you think about life, the way you talk, the way you dress, all those different things.”
State Of Major League Soccer
Fast forwarding to present day, Lalas could not be more excited about the current and future prospects of Major League Soccer, as a result of the above changes in attitude that have taken place. Since the league began play in 1996, Lalas has been a player and/or executive for five franchises. If anyone can offer an expert opinion on the MLS, it’s the man with the famous red hair.
“I think when you really look back at the last 15, 16 years, we kind of have to pat ourselves on the back because the growth of the actual product on the field has been incredible and the growth of the sport and the infrastructure and everything around Major League Soccer has also been unprecedented. Especially, when you put it up against other sports and certainly against other soccer leagues in terms of 15 years,” opined Lalas.
When assessing the MLS’s place in the American sports lexicon, Lalas had an interesting point of view regarding how the league matches up as compared to the US’s four established professional sports leagues.
“I can probably make an argument at this point, and I’m a diehard NHL fan, that it’s not only caught, but passed the NHL in a lot of ways. I think if you look at Major League Soccer right now as a stock, this is something that’s heading in one direction. Other leagues, to be quite honest, are not heading in that direction. So, I’m bullish. I am bullish on the future of Major League Soccer.”
Lalas firmly believes that the MLS’s association with major companies like AT&T represents further proof of how far the league has come.
“For better or worse, you are defined often by the people you associate with. To be associated as a league and a growing sport with someone like AT&T, look, these are blue chips, these are important companies, not just from a business standpoint, but from a cultural standpoint,” explained Lalas.
He later added, “I’m excited that they (AT&T) see Major League Soccer as something they want to associate with from a business standpoint.”
Lalas firmly believes that David Beckham’s five years with the LA Galaxy have also contributed significantly to the ongoing rise of the league.
“When you look back, it (Beckham’s tenure) was without a doubt a success. From a business perspective, the Galaxy is worth so much more now than they were in the past and they are relevant around the world, internationally. And that’s something you want when you have a brand that you are working on and growing,” asserts Lalas.
Lalas is of the opinion that Beckham’s time living and working as a professional soccer player in Los Angeles has added greater credibility to both the MLS and the idea of the world’s best players wanting to spend more of their playing days in the US, as opposed to the more established leagues of Europe. But, he does acknowledge that the planet’s top players will always follow the money.
“The opportunity to live and work in the United States as a soccer player is incredible. But, if you are a really good soccer player, the reality is you can make a tremendous amount of money other places, and until were able to compete with that, were gonna lose players over there,” explained Lalas.
US National Team
Lalas concluded the interview by providing analysis of the US national team’s decision to replace longtime coach Bob Bradley with European legend Jürgen Klinsmann.
“The change was necessary and I think the change was good in that it provided a fresh look at this team and I think Bob Bradley had taken it as far as he could. I think that the jury is certainly still out on Jürgen.”
The ESPN World Cup broadcaster added, “I appreciate and what I respect is when somebody has a plan, even if it’s flawed. I’d rather have somebody have a plan and say this is where were going. There are deviations throughout and there are challenges throughout, and I think that’s what Jürgen has.”