Alexi Lalas knows he can’t make everyone happy. Whether it’s on TV as a broadcaster or just talking about soccer in general, Lalas has long given up on pleasing everyone. That’s especially true when it comes to American soccer fans, who are not in the best of moods these days, anyway. Many are still reeling from the United States’ failure to qualify for the World Cup last November.
It was a crushing disappointment that only bears more grotesque fruit seven months later. The biggest soccer tournament in the world starts later on Thursday, and the United States will be on the sideline watching other nations have all the fun. Lalas, a former USMNT player and current broadcaster for Fox, is heading to Russia to cover the first World Cup without the U.S. since 1986.
He knows better than most what it means for the U.S. to miss the tournament, but he still has a job to do, and Lalas has publicly stated that he’s rooting for America’s continental soccer rival, Mexico, to win it all. The States might have a long history of tense matches with El Tri, but Lalas believes it’s important to represent the continent. Lalas is good at arguing passionately about something, even if it’s supporting his country’s biggest rival on the pitch.
That’s a decision that caught the eye of Estrella Jalisco, who asked Lalas to represent the United States in signing a fictional “North American Adoptive Futbol Team Agreement” (NAAFTA) treaty to support Mexico in the World Cup in Los Angeles. It’s silly, sure, but Lalas argues the cultural and political ties between Mexico and America are worth considering. He sat down with Uproxx before heading to Russia to cover the World Cup and discussed what’s next for soccer in America, who he likes in the tournament and how he’s grown as a broadcaster.
Uproxx Sports: Let’s talk about the World Cup and your role in the tournament. First of all, when are you heading over to Russia? You’re broadcasting over there for Fox, right? Have you ever been to Russia?
Alexi Lalas: I will be there for a six-week type of stint, a groundhog day, the best groundhog day you could ever live. I do studio so from our Fox perspective, we have a studio right on Red Square, and I’ll be doing day in and day out coverage. I’ve never been to Russia so I’m really looking forward to seeing that country and the people, albeit through the prism of a World Cup. It’s gonna be really cool. I’m ready to pack, which is a pain, but I’ve done this a whole lot so I think I’ve got it down to at least a science or maybe an art, but we’ll see.
By now everyone’s written a postmortem about the U.S. missing the World Cup. Obviously, it’s something that’s gonna be talked about for a long time, but now that the tournament is here do you think people will focus on who is playing or will they just lament what could have been?
Yeah, look, I mean, it’s disingenuous for me or anybody to say that it doesn’t matter. It does. It was a failure, and it sucks any way you slice it. However, I don’t think that there is a country in the world that is more able to embrace a World Cup without its home team playing in it than the United States.
With our incredible diversity comes all these connections, both direct and indirect, that we have. So those affiliations that people traditionally have are going to be amplified and then I think people are gonna discover a lot of teams and players, for whatever reasons, and they’ll gravitate to them because they like the way they play, or they like the uniforms, they like the way the players look, or the songs that they sing, or whatever it ends up being.
I think a lot of different teams are gonna be exposed to an American soccer public, and just an American sports public, that wouldn’t in the past. So everybody gets to pick their team, which is one of the reasons why I’m here. I’m supporting Mexico. It’s obviously our traditional rival, I say that as an ex-player from the national team. But over the years, this team of players and, to be honest with you, this culture that surrounds this team, they have earned and they deserve my support and my respect. I hope they do well this summer.
Some soccer fans will be with you, but the diehards that are gonna talk about Azteca and Dos a Cero, that’s a little bit tough for them to accept. What’s your pitch to someone who would have a tough time agreeing with you?
Just because you look at our intense rivalry with Mexico and therefore can’t comprehend how somebody, and certainly somebody like myself, could possibly support Mexico doesn’t make you any more genuine or authentic or relevant in terms of your support. Just because I support Mexico in this World Cup doesn’t preclude me from supporting the United States if and when they are back playing. But I don’t need to remind you or anybody else, I don’t have a team in this World Cup. Don’t think for a second that if the United States is playing Mexico or if the United States was in this World Cup, there’s no chance in hell that I would support Mexico.
But I recognize that I live in 2018 in the United States, let alone living in California and Los Angeles. And our connection is direct and indirect with this country in all different facets whether it’s culture, or language, or geography. It’s in everything that we do, politics, and all that kinda stuff.
Mexico and the Mexican culture is a part of America in 2018. Having a history with Mexico on the soccer field, but also off the soccer field, maybe lends itself to me supporting this team. And I’m not saying that anybody has to do anything, but I’m just saying what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. I want them to do well. I have friends off the field, but in no way does that mean that I would ever support Mexico over the United States if the United States was playing.
If people can’t get behind Mexico, what’s a logical team you think that someone will attract themselves to? I know Liverpool fans obviously they’re gonna pick Egypt, because of Mo Salah. Or maybe an underdog like Iceland is a fun pick, but what’s one team that stands out for you?
This is the interesting thing. So there’s the direct connections for some, but those indirect ones. You mentioned Iceland: I think they’re gonna get a lot of play, as they should, because it’s just a wonderfully romantic type of story in terms of what this team has come from and what they are, a country of 330,000 people. I think that’s gonna get a lot of play, and people are really gonna be drawn to that story. We’ll see what ends up happening when they have to step on the field and play. They’re not a surprise anymore when it comes to international soccer.
A team like Morocco, I think they’re in a really interesting group. I think Portugal is going to struggle. And then people are gonna also be mesmerized by the great teams that we have and the great players. It’s wonderful to see Neymar back on the field and scoring the other day. He looks to be back and ready to go for a rejuvenated and, I think, much more balanced type of Brazil team.
You’ve got Germany, obviously, going from trying to win back-to-back titles and a team and a country that theoretically could fill, let’s say, three different national teams and still be competitive. You have the incredible pressure not just in a country, but really of the world and almost of time, that is on the back of (Lionel) Messi and Argentina. There are all those different stories, and so many more I think are really on display.
I think we’re going to see this American soccer culture that is no longer niche or underground — it’s above ground, it’s vibrant, it’s passionate, it’s discerning — we’re gonna see all of that on full display this summer.
Do you think we’ll see anything in this World Cup, or maybe in the rest of our lives, to the magnitude of what happened with Brazil last World Cup? Every once in a while I just think about that scoreline against Germany and go I still can’t believe that happened to that team hosting its own World Cup. Is expecting a moment that incredible this time around asking too much?
I think that was an aberration, and it was something that is a Halley’s Comet type of thing. I was there, and it was so bad. It’s one thing to lose a game, and that can happen even to a host team and even to Brazil. And it got so far away from just losing a game that the normal reaction would’ve been, if Brazil lost that game, okay, we lost. People would be crying, people would be devastated. It went so far past that, that there wasn’t even the normal physical and emotional reaction that people had.
People weren’t crying, because it was a state of complete and utter shock, having seen something that nobody could’ve predicted and nobody expected to have happen. That’s the nature of sports. But I do think that we were seeing an anomaly, if you will, especially when it gets to the later rounds to have something like that happen. It was something for the ages, and it’s something they’re going to be fighting against this summer. They want to put that right, because they know that that will loom large and will continue until they do put it right.
The U.S. played two friendlies last week and over the last few months, they’ve taken some very slow steps into what the future of the program will be. Are you encouraged by what you’ve seen?
It’s hard for me to concentrate too much on what’s happening with the U.S. national team because I’m so engrossed in what’s happening this summer and my responsibility this summer. But I will say that I’ve been pleasantly surprised, at least of late, because it has been such a young core. I really do think that while we don’t wanna throw the baby out with the bathwater, I do think that establishing a very young core that is the heart of this team going forward, and giving them the reins and not burdening them with this incredible failure, I think is the way to go.
We have the time, we certainly have the talent, as we’ve seen, but you gotta give them time to accept and to have full ownership of what’s happening. I don’t want them to be burdened. I want them to say “You know what, it’s not happening on my watch.” That only happens if you almost start anew and have a whole new cycle with a whole new group of leaders that take that responsibility, and I think we have seen that. But once again it’s in the context of a team that only today just named a GM, still doesn’t have a coach, and kinda has to get through this summer before we come out the other side.
Your role as a broadcaster has sort of changed a bit, and I know you’re doing a little more in booth things for Fox. How interesting has that transition been for you? It seems like it’s a very difficult switch to make.
It’s a very different type of performance when you’re doing studio as compared to doing a game. You have to transition very quickly, sometimes, because I’m doing both. I started with studio, it’s where I’m most comfortable, but I’ll tell you what: Transitioning and changing into that and adjusting for that performance from my in-game type of perspective, it’s been wonderful. I’ve really learned a lot.
I do it in a different way, I understand that. For some people it’s okay, for some people it’s not. There’s no way I’m ever gonna please everybody. But I like to think what I’ve done is taken the performance that I have in the studio and try to sprinkle that in with the game commentary that I do. I admit that it’s not traditional, and I admit sometimes it probably rubs people the wrong way, but that’s the way that I do it. It is a work in progress too.
I think you can see with other sports, when people broadcast and move to different jobs, it gives them a better appreciation for the overall package that is working in TV. Is that something that you’ve seen? Does it make your analyst work better as well?
I think I’m better for my studio work when I’m doing a game and I think it forces me to change or to zero in on things that need to be talked about. But it also gives me an opportunity to understand that while working in studio is one type of performance, when people are watching that game and they are watching the same game that I am, while you end up having more time in totality, you end up having less time to make your points, if that makes sense. Being efficient has always been a hallmark of the studio performances and maybe even more so, but maybe in a different way, it’s become very very important in terms of me doing the color commentary.