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.
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...
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...