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On Soccer, Featuring Alexi Lalas

Alexi Lalas

He’s tall. He’s ginger. He’s got a music career that not many people know about.

He’s Alexi Lalas, and he has become the interpreter of American Soccer around the world. Since leaving the soccer business in 2008, Lalas has appeared constantly on American soccer coverage, his red hair being a beacon to the United States that soccer and the MLS are here to stay.

I was able to catch up with him while he was at an MLS and AT&T event in New York City, speaking with him on something he will never get sick of talking about, on soccer.

On Landon Donovan

Landon Donovan has arguably been the biggest storyline of the United States Men’s National Team over the past year, and now the epic has another chapter. Donovan was added to the 23 CONCACAF Gold Cup roster.

Some might be excited that Donovan is back in the national team picture, and while others might be curious as to what took Jürgen Klinsmann so long.

“I don’t think that the Gold Cup is going to determine whether Landon Donovan’s future,” said Lalas. “It is not like Landon Donovan has something at stake.”

Now that he is back, will Donovan slip right back in to Klinsmann’s starting XI? The USMNT has won four World Cup Qualifiers, forced a draw against Mexico in Estadio Azteca, and scored four goals against Germany in an international friendly, all since Donovan’s return from sabbatical.

“[Klinsmann has] created a team that believes in itself,” Lalas said. “I would assume he’s playing. Either he’s good enough or he’s not.”

On MLS Expansion

What started as a league of just 10 teams in 1996 has now doubled in size. This number includes New York City FC, the recent $100 million franchise which Manchester City and the New York Yankees concocted.

MLS Commissioner Don Garber has already hinted at a possible 24-team MLS in the future. Is there a point point where the league gets too big? Lalas thinks that a 24 team league is plausible.

Manchester City and the Bronx are not the only sources of revenue, as AT&T has also invested in MLS in April. The new sponsorship deal with AT&T will provide MLS to supply its fans with exclusive content for mobile devices.

“They are capable of having a 24 team league,” Lalas said. “The MLS needs people like AT&T partners who believe in the sport.”

On U20 World Cup

With the Confederations Cup taking all the soccer headlines, the U20 World Cup is taking a back seat. For the US’s sake, that might not be a bad thing.

The U20 USMNT got bounced out of the tournament in Turkey after just the group stage. They managed only one point, a draw against U20 France, before Ghana sent them home for good on Thursday.

“Disappointing from a results standpoint,” Lalas said. “The results are always going to be there.”

That said, one of the more important parts is the graduates to the national team. It is nice that Kaleb Cuevas equalized against France, and that Luis Gil was able score against Spain, but their national team success will speak volumes over what they do in the U20 World Cup. The experience, though, is what matters.

“I think they are better having gone through this process,” said Lalas, who played with the national team from 1991 to 1998.

On The Developing U.S. Soccer

The MLS restricts the amount of international roster slots to 152 throughout the 19 teams in the league. The rest have to be filled out with domestic players, with Canadian clubs also required to have three Canadian players on their squad.

While it may seem rash or arbitrary, the measure has been very effective. In fact, 16 of the 23 players on the U.S. Gold Cup Roster have MLS connections. That includes all five listed forwards – Landon Donovan, Chris Wondolowski, Hercules Gomez, Will Bruin, and Jack McInerney – as well as all three goalkeepers – Bill Hamid, Sean Johnson, and Nick Rimando. Meanwhile, the United States is on top of the CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying group, winning four of the six games they have played.

Lalas, being the former general manager of the LA Galaxy, likes the domestic talent trend in Major League Soccer, but is undecided on whether he likes the roster restrictions.

“Without MLS, [the USMNT] would not be this strong,” said Lalas. “Going forward, it is going to be interesting.”

For many young soccer players, the dream is to play club footy in Europe, whether England, Spain, Germany, Italy, or even Scotland. In a global sport, the leagues in these countries have imported packs and herds of talent outside of their respective countries.

The problem? It can have a dramatic effect on the development of domestic talent.

England, for example, strongly invests in European talent. Just look at the top four clubs, Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, and Arsenal; 71 percent of players that made appearances for the top four clubs were foreign players. It may be great from a club perspective, but from an internation perspective England have suffered from the foreign flavor. Since finishing fourth in the 1990 World Cup, England have only gone back to the quarterfinals twice.

The Spanish league is the opposite scenario. Looking at the players from the top four clubs in the 2012/2013 Spanish Primera División – FC Barcelona, Real Madrid, Atlético Madrid, and Real Sociedad – 39 percent of them are foreign imports. What’s better is that 15 of the 23 players on the Spain Confederations Cup squad, which lost in the final to Brazil, played their prior club football in La Liga, 13 of which played for FC Barcelona and Real Madrid.

Don Garber and his MLS front office has put many restrictions in place in terms of roster construction to create more of a competitive balance and to develop American soccer, but restrictions, in all spots of life, sometimes have the tendency to wear off. Maybe the domestic roster rules could be one of those that gets thrown out after a while.

“It helps American soccer, but I’m undecided,” said Lalas. “I’m in favor of teams doing what they need to do in soccer games. I think eventually the U.S. soccer player will be the best option.”

The next game for the United States is Friday, July 5 against Guatemala, one of two friendlies the United States will play before the CONCACAF Gold Cup. And there is no doubt, Alexi will have something to say.

(Photos Courtesy of Howard C. Smith/isiphotos.com and Arsenal.com)