It’s gearing up to be a big summer of soccer for Americans, even if the U.S. Men’s National Team didn’t make the 2018 World Cup taking place in Russia. There’s going to be a lot of the sport on television for the next month, with plenty of enthralling headlines about what’s happening on and off the pitch. Will it be a geopolitical disaster? Will Lionel Messi bring Argentina to glory? Will Mohamed Salah and Egypt capture the world’s attention?
There’s also the MLS building tons of exciting headlines. Not only has Zlatan Ibrahimovic signed to the Los Angeles Galaxy, but Wayne Rooney has gone from Everton to D.C. United. Also, the International Champions Cup, where 16 of Europe’s biggest clubs play matches in the States, kicks off this July.
But what does it all mean for American supporters—both dieheard and those with a wavering interest—of the game? Who do they cheer for in the World Cup? Is Rooney to MLS exactly what the league doesn’t need? Will Messi ever step out of Diego Maradona’s shadow?
With the U.S. being out of the World Cup, much of the North American attention has shifted to our rivals south of the border, Mexico. It seems sacreligious to go for a club or country that you have a fierce rivalry with on the field, but not everyone feels that way, including U.S. Men’s National Team legend Alexi Lalas, who will be spearheading Fox Sports’ coverage of the World Cup.
To make sense of it all, we spoke to Lalas about everything footba… soccer in the States right now.
(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
Wayne Rooney is going to D.C. United. What do you think about that?
When I heard the initial rumors, I compared and contrasted them to my reaction to the Zlatan news. I came out very quickly saying the Zlatan thing excited me and piqued my curiosity much more than the Rooney thing. Then the word started filtering out about the money. Only in MLS do we lose our minds over the actual money. We’re equally invested in this business of this sport as we are the actual Xs and Os of the playing. It seems like a lot of money. The sentiment that a lot of people share from a D.C. United perspective: If this is what they want to do, fine. They’re opening up a new stadium, so they have to do something big. They have to be relevant again.
Is it a good move for D.C.?
If this is the only thing they’re doing, then this isn’t good for them or the league. It has to be the start of something much bigger. We know he’s not the player he was 10 years ago. Neither is Zlatan or anyone that comes over here for that matter. With D.C., Rooney’s going into a much different environment. He’s not playing on the best team, he’s playing on the worst team.
Do you think it’s weird that someone like Wayne Rooney is going to get paid a lot more than someone like New York Red Bulls’ Bradley Wright-Phillips, who’s a lot more important to the league on the field?
That’s life. I can walk outside of your office and go down to Broadway and find kickass actors that would blow away the mega box office stars when it comes to Hollywood. That someone is popular, and there’s a curiosity, interest, and desire to spend money to see that player play isn’t always correlated with what they are in that moment, or what they have been. That’s nothing new. I’m not sure how much [Rooney] moves the needle when it comes to selling tickets. What Rooney represents, and for my money, the world-class player for England over the last 15 years. There’s incredible cachet and value in that. We’ll see what the D.C. folks think of it and if they come out—and how long they come out.
What do you say to the American who loves Manchester United but will never watch MLS?
Bonnie Raitt said, “I can’t make you love me if you don’t.” I know as MLS fans, and as American soccer fans, we spend a tremendous amount of time and energy trying to convince people that something is legitimate, and that this is better than you might think. But we need to pick and choose our battles. The snobbery that exists [in soccer] exists in all walks of life. When I ask people why they don’t like it, they say, “Well, it’s not high enough quality.” I say, “Well, that doesn’t tell me anything.” If you’ve been told it’s not of the same quality, that doesn’t mean that it’s not. A lot of the time you’re comparing apples to oranges, with salary cap and all that. It’s not easy to get through people’s preconceived notions. It gets easier with generations. I think the next generation has a much more open mind with soccer and their soccer teams.
I went to the launch of the International Champions Cup in Miami and it kind of depressed me. Is that the wrong way to get Americans into the sport?
You’re no more a soccer fan if you call it football. You’re no more a soccer fan if you extol the virtues of Neymar, or if you run around calling people mate or say Wenger Out. To completely ignore what’s happening in your backyard, because you’ve been told it’s lesser quality, I think you’re missing out. Just not on the game, but on a different type of culture. But if you want to be part of something that’s unique and different and first—we don’t get a lot of chances to be part of something that’s first in life—and to be part of the American soccer community is fun, because it’s diverse and fun in the way that it looks at itself and the game.
When the U.S. got eliminated from the World Cup, Fox Sports said it’s the “Home of El Tri.” How do you expect Americans to support the Mexican National Team?
I’m not telling Americans to root for them. I’m telling them that me, as an American, I can appreciate and respect and support them in the World Cup. Not just as an American, but as someone who played for the United States. The American team that I played for is not in this World Cup. I, like everybody, am looking for a team I can get behind. That it is our major rival, I know rubs people the wrong way. In a strange way, it’s the most American thing you can do to respect and recognize your biggest rival. No way does that diminish my pride or passion I have for the United States. And no way would I ever root for Mexico if they played the U.S. We talk about the rivalry, at times it’s been very fierce and very personal. I’m friends with those guys, we’ve battled on the field, but I want to see Mexico to do well. If it pains you to hear a former U.S. Men’s National Team player say that, then you have bigger issues, and they’re not just with me.
Why should Americans care about this World Cup if the U.S. isn’t playing?
It’s a party. Americans love a party, and it’s a party that the world is coming to. Obviously Russia is hosting it. What draws somebody to a team who doesn’t have a direct connection? I don’t know. It could be a million different things. You like their national anthem. Their players are good looking. Or their uniforms are awesome. Their fans are nuts, and you want to be part of that party within the party. Going on an adventure with that team is fun. Waking up early. Having beer for breakfast, will be a unique experience. This is going to be one of those moments where people associate a summer with the World Cup from a lifestyle perspective.
There’s been a lot of talk about football violence plaguing the World Cup, especially with what happened with Russia and England at Euro 2016. Is that a real threat?
I’m not worried. I don’t fear for my safety or security or anybody elses.The reason is this: politics aside, I’ve never been to Russia, I can’t wait to see what this country is growing up in the ‘70s and ‘80s. They have a vested interest in making this thing go well and making this a positive interest for all of the visitors. If there’s any nation that could have something on lockdown for that month, it’s Russia. It’s an advertisement to the world. I don’t need to remind you or anyone else out there, the view people have of Russia here in the States isn’t necessarily a positive one. I think they have a real opportunity here and everything in front of or behind the scenes is a memorable one.
Egypt is a dark horse pick for the World Cup, thanks to Mo Salah. Can they win?
It’s so much Salah-centric. Yes they have talent and yes they got back to the promise land here of the World Cup. And yes they are riding arguably the best player in the world right now. It’s so focused on Salah, but as goes Mo Salah, as goes Egypt. I think they’ll be fun to watch, but it will be readily apparent that while Mo Salah is playing in the World Cup, Liverpool is not.
Who’s your dark horse pick?
We’re still knee deep in research. A team like Morocco has a chance. It’s not just about talent, but where you line up in your group. Where you line up in terms of cross play. There’s all this talk about Belgium, but most people understand they’re no longer a dark horse, they have all this talent. It’s not a great team, it hasn’t been a great team, and will they finally get it together for this golden generation? At the top, it’s Germany, Brazil, Spain, and any Argentinian team that has Messi playing for it is always going to be in it.
Can Messi finally win?
We talk about pressure, and all the pressure NBA athletes go under, and that’s all well, but here’s a guy with not just the pressure of Argentina, but the pressure of history and getting out of the shadow of Diego Maradona rests solely on him winning a World Cup. He doesn’t need to win a World Cup, but the world needs him to have that moment in order to put him ahead of Maradona. You’re diminutive, you’re left-footed, you’re number 10, you’re Argentinian.
Maybe he should do some cocaine before the match.
Oh man, oh man. He’s gotta do something. I think this will be his last go. Even if he doesn’t win, he’ll still go down as one of the greats.