Alexi Lalas will carry a lot of good memories back to the Home Depot Center on Sunday when he returns as part of ESPN’s team of 12 English-language television and Spanish radio commentators for MLS Cup 2011.
The former U.S. Men’s National Team defender won his first professional league title in the waning seasons of a 10-year Hall of Fame career with the Los Angeles Galaxy – MLS Cup 2002.
Following stops as president and general manager of the San Jose Earthquakes (2003-’06) and NY/NJ MetroStars (2005-’06), both teams owned then by the Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG), Lalas was transferred to the same role with the Galaxy — AEG’s jewel franchise — in 2006.
On a hot summer afternoon July 13, 2007, Lalas welcomed David Beckham to the Galaxy in front of more than 5,000 fans and about 700 accredited media from all over the world at the Home Depot Center.
Unveiling the English soccer icon placed the Galaxy on a path to what Lalas calls a ‘Super Club’ (see Q&A), anchored on the field by U.S. National Team star Landon Donovan and Beckham. It also laid the foundation for the team’s two straight MLS Supporters’ Shield trophies in 2010 and 2011.
After two straight unspectacular seasons, AEG relieved Lalas of his duties in a major shakeup that included the separation of head coach and Dutch soccer legend Ruud Gullit from the organization in August 2008.
Leading up to the Sunday’s MLS Cup 2011 and perhaps, Beckham’s last match in a Galaxy uniform (ESPN, ESPN3, ESPN Mobile TV and ESPN Radio at 9 p.m. ET), Lalas reflected on some aspects of his tenure as the Galaxy’s president and GM. Excerpts:
On his reaction when he first learned AEG would sign David Beckham to play for the Galaxy:
Lalas: “First thing that went through my head was that this is a wonderful opportunity for the club. The second thing — this is not going to be as easy as it sounds. It wasn’t. It was challenging on- and off-the-field. Plenty of mistakes were made. Ultimately, when we look back at it, I’m proud that I played a small part and I learned a tremendous amount. I think the Galaxy has come out on the other side, a better business and more importantly, a better club.”
On whether the current Los Angeles Galaxy meets his standard for a ‘Super Club’ ( Note: As an MLS team executive, Lalas was a proponent for creating ‘SuperClubs’ that will serve as the league’s standard-bearers):
Lalas: “Without a doubt. I mean, a club that everybody looks to; that as many people don’t like as do like; a club that spends a tremendous amount of money on its product; a club that has an ego; a club that positions itself, not only domestically, but internationally as ‘The Club’ in a league. I think that LA Galaxy, at this point, qualifies for all of that.
“Ultimately, it is also a club that is successful. That part of the equation, while I was there, didn’t materialize. The reason LA Galaxy can look at themselves as a ‘SuperClub’ right now is for having gone through that process … I think the Galaxy redefined themselves and made it much more about the Galaxy than just about a specific player. It took a while to do that because, understandably, none of us had gone through the hurricane that is the arrival of someone like David Beckham.”
On Beckham’s early struggles in the League versus his dominance this season at 36 years old:
Lalas: “David Beckham is not just a player that is important to the league. The reason why he’s important is because he is a messenger. He needed sometime to evolve and to assimilate, on- and off-the-field, into the MLS and understand what it is about. It is a very unique experience. He’ll be the first person to tell you … It is a lot harder than people understand. There’s much more parity than exists in other leagues around the world. Much more travel and all of these different things that are big adjustments for someone who has never been through it.
“The great thing from a David Beckham standpoint is that the last couple of years, we’ve seen a phenomenal player. We’ve really gotten our money’s worth for David Beckham. That he’s 36 years old, the fact is that he’s just a good player. Nobody serves the ball like him whether it is a cross or long ball. That has not changed with age. Yes, he’s slowed down, but I think he’s also been smart in the way he has adjusted playing with the Galaxy and the way they’ve adjusted with them.”
On his role balancing Beckham’s national team commitments with England versus the demands of the club:
Lalas: “You are paying for the player. You want to make sure that you protect that player and the asset you have. I also recognize that for certain players, and certainly David (Beckham) is one of them, and I think I was one of them, I will do anything to represent the United States. I know that he (Beckham) takes his representation of England and maybe next summer, of Great Britain with the Olympics, very seriously. I respect that … I will never begrudge a player for playing for the national team, even if it meant flying around the world. Or even if it meant, maybe, hurting or be detrimental to my cause as a member of a club.”
(Note: Lalas played professional soccer for Padova in the Italian Serie A 1994-’96 – the first U.S. player in the league. On June 11, 1995, he flew from a relegation playoff match that Padova won to appear in the second half of a U.S. Men’s National Team victory over Nigeria in the U.S. Cup.)