This written story runs in tandem with an audio feature published on "The Supporters Pod: MLS Analysis", titled: "Special Feature | Who is Alexi Lalas?"
Two weeks before the beginning of the 1994 World Cup, 24-year-old Alexi Lalas made his way into his middle seat on an economy flight.
He immediately struck up a conversation with an older woman who sat next to him.
“What do you do?” she asked.
“Well, I play soccer,” the 6-foot-4 red-headed center-back responded.
“Oh, well what is your job?” she asked.
“Well, I play soccer,” Lalas replied.
Still believing she hadn’t reached the crux of the information, she rephrased in a different way.
“Well, how do you make money?”
“I play soccer.”
Soccer culture in the United States has come a long way since before the 1994 World Cup, which was the catalyst that created what is now Major League Soccer, the first topflight soccer division in the country.
On the US men’s national team during the 1994 World Cup, Lalas found himself on sports’ biggest stage. But that limelight has been methodically stretched out, now over 27 years, turning the on-field pro, front office manager and TV personality into one of the biggest and boldest voices across American soccer.
John Strong has worked alongside Lalas at Fox as a TV analyst and announcer since 2015, when Lalas made the move over from ESPN. Strong says when he first heard about the move, he wasn’t sure what working with a larger-than-life figure like Lalas would be like.
“I had all these people on Twitter like ‘Oh I’m so sorry you have to work with Alexi. What a terrible guy he is,’” Strong said. “He’s actually the nicest guy ever.”
Lalas’ move to Fox, also reunited him with his old friend Rob Stone, whom Lalas began his TV career with, during a short break in his professional playing career in 2000.
“I know Alexi has triggered a lot of people,” Stone said. “But the way he handles it is really amazing, and he should be given some credit for instigating people to have these passionate conversations.”
Lalas understands he’s created this sort of persona. He’s made a career giving controversial takes, motivating fans to argue, tweet and scream their own opinions at the top of their lungs.
“I look at it like a comedian working stuff out in a club, that I then take to my performance on television,” Lalas said. “A lot of the stuff we talk about does make it to television. So, they’re making me better.”
He would be the first person to tell you that his personality has rubbed plenty of people the wrong way. But most television performers live by the idea that creating those strong emotions among viewers proves that you are doing things right.
“I get this question often of ‘Do you believe everything you say?’,” he said. “Absolutely.”
At the same time, Lalas acknowledges that he inhabits a character on TV, one that is comforting to him.
He understands television, using each element of the production to his advantage to keep viewers engaged.
“This is a guy who grew up idolizing the hair rock bands of the 80s,” Strong said. “Had he not become a soccer player he would’ve become an entertainer.”
But he did become a soccer player, and a good one at that. In addition to playing in the World Cup, Lalas had a professional career that lasted more than 12 years.
His talents took him around the world, playing several seasons abroad, including a stint in Serie A, Italy’s topflight soccer division.
However, Lalas said the proudest day of his career was leaving the prestigious Serie A to help launch the then brand-new American project, Major League Soccer, or MLS.
“He doesn’t bleed red, he bleeds red, white, and blue,” Stone said. “He cares deeply about where American soccer is going.”
Lalas could’ve easily said no to MLS. He had the talent to be able to survive in any of the world’s top leagues. But that wasn’t his endgame.
“He’s always understood that that’s what he’s wanted, for soccer to succeed in America” Strong said.
The American soccer community will always be near and dear to Lalas. Since coming back to MLS in 1996, his public life has been either directly or indirectly linked to growing the game in his home country.
He takes ownership and pride in the strides that American soccer has taken within the last 25 years.
“It can drive me crazy, and we eat our own at times,” Lalas said of the community. “But it’s OK to take a step back and pat ourselves on the back for how far we’ve come in a relatively short period of time.”
Lalas stays open and honest about where American soccer is and acknowledges that there’s a long way to go. But he’s committed to being there every step of the way while it evolves.
“He doesn’t suffer this conversation that we (American soccer) are an inferior product, and that we should bow down to the Spain’s and the England’s of the world,” Stone said. “He puts up a brave strong fight for what American soccer is.”
If he didn’t truly love American soccer, which he’s been a part of for the last quarter century, his flame would have burned out. But it hasn’t.
“He loves to say ‘la cosa nostra,’ it's our cause, it's our purpose,” Strong said.
Lalas recognizes that the 1994 World Cup was the moment his life changed forever. From that point on, his name would always be tied to soccer. But he takes tremendous pride in the aspects of his life he’s developed off the pitch.
Growing up in Detroit, his mother was a writer, and his father was a professor not a family dynamic that destined him for only athletic success later in life.
Lalas always kept the academic part in check, and his mother enrolled him in music lessons at a young age.
He would trudge up the street twice a week to meet Mrs. Van Heusen for his piano lessons. Looking back, he’s so thankful his mother forced him to do that, as music remains one of his passions.
“She was making a point of saying, while you might go on and do great things from a soccer perspective, that’s not the only thing that you are,” he said.
That guidance laid the foundation for the other things Lalas has achieved in his personal life. He has released several rock albums, under his own name.
“It’s been a wonderful outlet for creativity, and it’s something that I love to do,” he said. “I continue to keep putting stuff out for those three people, who including my mom keep listening to it.”
Today near his home in Los Angeles, Lalas stays involved in the soccer community, playing pick-up, or volunteering as a linesman referee at youth games.
“He’s a sensationally normal dude,” Strong said. “And that gets lost in the caricature that gets built around him, but that’s part of what makes it so fun to work with him.”
Stone, who has been earning paychecks alongside Lalas since 2000, says the two have built a strong connection over the years.
“We live in the same town, we carpool to work together, and we hang out socially together,” Stone said. “We’re brothers in arms, fighting with the limited resources that we have to strengthen this product, and make American soccer both female and male, as strong and as respected as it can be.”
As Lalas continues to cement his legacy with each TV performance, he hopes that his contributions will leave American soccer in a better place than from where he began.
He notes that there was a time where he was able to stand on the shoulders of the previous generation and that those people had allowed him to do the things he’s been able to do.
Lalas hopes to pay that total forward and provide a boost for the next generation of passionate American soccer professionals.
“Hopefully I open up some doors,” he said. "Whether it’s on the field, in the front office, or in the media and broadcast world. If I’m able to change some of that and help some of them along the way, either directly or just doing the things I'm doing, that’ll be enough for me.”
Looking ahead at the set of new opportunities this generation has at their fingertips, Lalas is almost giddy, ready for these young individuals to succeed.
“It warms the cockles of my red-headed heart. It makes me so happy.”