Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Alexi Lalas - The SSAC Interview (Part 2)

The first half of the interview focused on analytics, both in Alexi's personal career and in producing high value soccer coverage at ESPN.  The second half pivoted to US Men's National Team and MLS prognostication, and closed out with some lighthearted questions on hair products and ginger traits.  Herewith is the second half of my interview with Alexi Lalas as part of my coverage of SSAC for the Howler.

Zach Slaton: On the US Men's team.  There's a lot of people who feel we missed a huge opportunity in the last World Cup given where we were in the bracket and the competition we saw.  Nonetheless, we're now a perennial knockout round contender.  What does the national team need to do in the next ten to twenty years to really be a perennial quarterfinal or semifinal threat?

Alexi Lalas: When you talk about the game against Ghana, that is an incredible opportunity that was ultimately wasted.  You're not playing an elite team in the world.  You're playing a good team. Don't get me wrong, but you're not playing an elite team.  That pathway that opened up, that's what Jurgen Klinsmann has been hired to do.  It will come down to that one game for Jurgen Klinsmann.  He's not been hired to qualify the team for the World Cup.

Now how he goes about doing that, so that when that moment comes when you are playing a Ghana in a Round of 16 to then go on and play Uruguay and take advantage of it.  How he goes about doing that and preparing the team for that moment is up to him.  The jury's out as to what that is going to look like.  We saw that the other day.  That's really what his job is.

Your question is how do we get there so that we're doing it consistently?  You got to do it once, first, in order to be consistent at anything!  When I am assessing Jurgen Klinsmann it's easy to do it just on the game that day, but really where he's going to be assessed is when it gets to the World Cup.  And to a certain extent what he's doing behind the scenes to have that next generation that he might not be around to see come to fruition.  That's a little harder to do when you're just seeing the game like the other day against Italy.

ZS: I don't want to put down guys like Bob Bradley, because we're growing the sport and the national team.  What I'm hearing you kind of say is that you've gotta have a system, you've got to have an overall manager of the system that's of the caliber of someone like Klinsmann.  And let that system work because we don't know what the system looks like.  It's the caliber of the national team coach you have in place, and let him implement the system he feels he needs because he has a track record of success competing at those levels.

AL: Jurgen is very honest and up front.  He will point to what he did with Germany in the past and how it's kind of come to fruition now.  That's all fine and well.

The other day we played Italy.  We beat Italy.  Historic? Without a doubt. To be celebrated? Absolutely, without a doubt.  But he promised a complete change in the way the team was going to play and the mentality it had.  To use his words, "a much more proactive approach in terms of pressuring other teams and keeping possession of the ball."  And then you go out and beat Italy in what amounts to the exact same style and way that this US team has been playing for years.  My job is not to be a cheerleader.  My job is to provide perspective and to be honest and to say, "Don't call that a different style!"

So nothing has really changed.  That's not a bad thing.  Maybe Jurgen Klinsmann's job ultimately is to find a way to manage the tools he already has and to make them play this much better [narrows pinch of thumb and pointer finger].  Not to completely change the system because he might come to the realization, and maybe the game the other day helps him come to this realization, that he doesn't have the players to play the way that he wants to.  That pragmatism might come in to play.  I don't think that that's a bad thing.

The man to lead the USMNT to the World Cup semifinals?

ZS:  Who are the three players in this upcoming MLS season that you're really looking forward to?

AL: I am excited to see the return of David Ferreira because I thought he was so dynamic and different from what the league has had in the past.  He obviously suffered a season-ending injury, and Dallas completely morphed and changed into a different type of team.  A pretty successful team without him.  And now he comes back into the fold.  So how they integrate him back in, and whether or not they'll change back or if they've moved on and he needs to integrate back in to a different team.  That's going to be fascinating for me to see.

Edson Buddle.  I had Edson Buddle at the Galaxy, and I traded for him, I think, twice.  I traded for him in New York and in LA.  So I have a track record of loving him as a player, but I am also interested to see how he integrates back into a team that's already been to the pinnacle.

ZS: It's almost like he left at the exact wrong time.

AL: It was the worst timing for him, and yet would they have done it with him?  Now we're going to see.  In MLS you start taking one little piece out of these teams and very quickly it starts to crumble.  That's just the nature of Major League Soccer.

On the other side of the country, I like a guy like Thierry Henry because he's coming off a successful stint in England and I think he's playing very well so far in pre-season.  A year on having understood what it means now.  We saw David Beckham go through this process where it took him a while to figure out what it means to play in MLS on and off the field.  It takes a while for people to adjust, and especially for big stars who are coming from Spanish football in both cases.  I'll be interested to see now if he's... not rejuvenated, but much more engaged in what's going on.

ZS: Frankly, he had a very combative personality [his first few years in the league].  You could see it with him motioning to the fans.

AL: And he still scored a bunch of goals, and still played very well last year!  It just shows that if he's engaged and he does take full ownership of that team he could be a force by himself.  More importantly, the Red Bulls could be a force.

ZS: I'm not going to put down the league, because I love it.  But the biggest adjustment for him was that clearly it takes more than one guy to score a goal and for his two-hundred-plus goals at Arsenal he had a certain style and quality of player he was used to.  As you said, for a lot of these guys that come over from other leagues it's not just the physicality of MLS , but also the quality of the setup and the pass.  Is it actually a couple of yards in front of you, or is it going to be where you were two yards ago on a sprint?

AL: Sometimes you have to lower your expectations of play.  That's difficult for players to do.  It's gearing down, and sometimes when you've been in fifth gear the whole time it's hard to go back down.

If the first match was any indication, this may be another
frustrating season for Thierry Henry.

ZS: Let's finish up with some lighthearted questions.

AL: Sure!

ZS: It's no secret that you've got some ginger competition over at NBC. [Alexi laughs] [As someone who lives in Seattle,] Arlo took a little while to get used to... he talks a WHOLE lot in the broadcast booth.  More so than a lot of other broadcasters.

AL: Because he has no one to interrupt him!

ZS: True.  He has no color commentator.  And even if they did have someone in the booth I don't think they would get a word in anyways.  "Um, excuse me Arlo..."

AL: [in faux British accent] "No, sit down!" 

ZS: Exactly.  So settle something for me.  Which one of you has the better ginger powers when it comes to analysis and broadcasting, and explain why?

AL: I would say that when it comes to actual gingerness, I am much more ginger.  Certainly outwardly.  Look, ginger is ultimately on the inside so he is one of my brothers in the mutant gene category.  When it comes to actual gingerness on the outside and especially on camera there is absolutely no debate.  I... am... the... most... ginger.

Now when it comes to actually doing our jobs, the good thing is that I don't have to compete with him because we do very different things.

ZS: Any chance we pair you guys up?

AL: At some point it would be incredible to have two gingers in the booth!

ZS: When the camera... when they did the cutaway?

AL: The camera would explode.  It could be dangerous, but it could be delightfully dangerous. It could be combustible in the most awesome sense.  So at some point that might happen.

You know when gingers meet sometimes there is friction from being trod upon for so many years.  When you finally meet one of your brethren there's still...

ZS: Especially in a successful role?

AL: Exactly!

ZS: I have a friend, the one who designed my business cards.  We affectionately refer to her husband as  a "crafty ginger."

AL: Well, aren't we all?

ZS: Is that just a natural trait?

AL: I have two children, and I am pleased to tell you that the mutant gene is alive and well in both of them.  I am doing my part, because each year whether I see it or not it comes out that we're a dying breed.  In 50 years we'll be gone.  I and my wife are doing our part to make sure that we last as long as possible.  I explain to them that this is a very special gift you have been given.  At times it will be very difficult to deal with.  This is the burden that we have.

ZS: So you're crafty even in procreation.

AL: Oh yeah!  Oh yeah!

ZS: I did have one friend request that I ask this question.  He's been following the national team for years.  Back in the day when you had the epic beard and hair, we haven't had a duo since then like you and Cobi Jones.

AL: Yeah, we had me, Cobi, 'Celo.  There was some good hair back then.  It's so disappointing now.

ZS: Did you guys actually share hippy hair products, or was it strictly "hands off" and you each had your own supply?

AL: [a hearty laugh comes out of Alexi] I get more questions about the hair, and I completely understand why.  It was awesome.  Let's be honest, we were friggin' awesome when it came to hair!

ZS: It was an image, along with the faux denim uniforms at the 1994 World Cup.

AL: Without a doubt, but I will say this.  It takes an incredible amount of time and energy and money to look like you just rolled out of bed.  Whether it's split ends or scrunchies or hot oil treatments there was a tremendous amount of maintenance that went on in the US National Team locker room before, at halftime, and post-game.  Let me tell you...

ZS: So it's a lot easier now?

AL: It's a WHOLE lot easier. In my old age I look back wistfully at the past.  I don't think people recognize the value of hair in soccer  enough.  Certainly this generation doesn't recognize it.  Which is why I see a guy like Brek Shea I do a personal little clap and say, "Alright, this kid gets it."  This is part of our sport.  We don't wear helmets. We don't have masks.  We don't have anything like that.

ZS: You've got to have some sense of style on the pitch.

AL: Exactly.  Be memorable!

Everyone remembers the hairstyles of Alexi and Cobi,
but what about some love for Marcelo?
ZS: Final question.  It's still hair related.  My wife will not let me shave my beard.

AL: Really?

ZS: I am a little concerned that there might be some commentary going on there about the rest of my face. [Alexi laughs]  I read the interview you did with Free Beer Movement, and you described how you lost a bet and that's why you had to shave.  So I am curious as to what was the bet, and what's it going to take to get the hair to come back even if it's for a one-off appearance on ESPN.

AL: I met my wife when I was ten years old, and we went our separate ways for many, many years.  When we finally got back together, many years on we had gone on with our lives.  She caught me at the tail end of my career, and she likes to constantly remind me that she missed the glory years.  I was working for NBC in the Olympics back in 2000, and we were in Sydney.  At that point she was my girlfriend.  We had an epic night out... a lot of stories start with that!  When we got back to the beautiful hotel room in Sydney it dawned on me that I needed to do something monumental.  And to this day she will deny that she had anything to do with it, but I do know that now that I am clean shaven...

ZS: So one night you go home from the broadcast...

AL: The Olympics were done.  So now we're out partying, having a great time, and celebrating.  We come back to the hotel room, and I've had a wonderful night as I said.  I say, "This is what I need to do!"  I think deep down she was ecstatic that I had brought this up, and did nothing in the least to stop me.

ZS: It's like Sampson.  She can't be the one to suggest it and have you lose...

AL: Exactly. I went in, and I shaved it.  I woke up the next morning and I was like, "WHAT THE HELL?!?!"

ZS: There's a lot worse things you could do after an epic night.

AL: Exactly.  Ultimately I stayed shaven, and I married the girl, too.

ZS: Any chance it ever comes back? 

AL: Like I said, it's a lot of maintenance, man.  It gets stuff caught in it, you're constantly having to trim it.  When my kids see pictures they have an understanding now of what I used to look like and they laugh and laugh and laugh.  I think at some point, just for nostalgia and so I can say I did it, I will grow it out because it does grow fast.  Maybe at some point when I have a period of time where I can just go away I will work on it and then bring it back in full force as a retro thing. [one more laugh from Alexi for good measure]

ZS: I am sure that the hits on your Twitter account and Google Image searches would go through the roof if you do.  You search for those images, and I show people your Twitter icon...

AL: The before and after

ZS: Yeah, the before and after.  They recognize you with the beard. "Oh yeah! I recognize him!  I remember him!" if they're not big soccer fans.  

AL: It's amazing.  I say all the time, "Never has so much been done with a modicum of talent, crazy facial hair, and a guitar." So I'll take it, man!

ZS: Alexi, thank you very much.

This concludes my coverage of the 2012 Sloan Sports Analytics Conference.  I must thank the staff of the conference for all of their assistance, including finding me a copy of the Grantland book that I needed to get signed as a gift for my wife.  Thank you to Alexi Lalas and Drew Carey for granting me a good bit of their time for interviews.  And most of all, thank you to the Howler for providing me a media outlet in which I can write about the conference.  Look for my writeup in an upcoming issue of the magazine, and stay up to date on their launch plans by signing up for the mailing list at their website linked above.

Finally, if you're interested in more Alexi Lalas material from SSAC you can head over to Forza Futbol and download the audio from their interview with him.  This may be of special interest to those who follow the Spanish game.