It’s Monday morning in the Complex office and U.S. Soccer legend and Fox Sports analyst Alexi Lalas shows up in a blazer, dress slacks, and a pair of “Pirate Black” Adidas Yeezy 350s. “I didn’t know these were a big deal when Adidas gave them to me,” he says. “I’ve been friends with the brand for years.” But we’re not here to talk about shoes or style, but rather what’s going on with the U.S. Men’s National Team, which recently named Columbus Crew head honcho Gregg Berhalter as the team’s new coach.
Not only did I get the chance to talk to Lalas about his thoughts on Berhalter, but also the perception that playing for the USMNT doesn’t mean anything to certain players anymore, and whether or not it can qualify for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. We also spoke about whether or not Atlanta United making the MLS Cup Final was controversial, whether their supporters are plastic, and who will take home the Cup this year.
(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
The USMNT has a new coach, Gregg Berhalter. You don't seem too excited.
I know you're not happy about it. Well, I'm excited that there's a coach. I mean everyone was kind of at their wit’s end. I think the level of frustration was exasperated by the length of time. I forget when we talked last, but they were probably still looking when we talked last. You know I told you at the time I was about naming [the coach] immediately and using this strange gift that we have been given over the last year, which is the gift of time, which rarely do teams have to cultivate and foster a whole new group of players. They didn't do it, and I can at least be sympathetic to the U.S. Soccer Federation president who was named, the World Cup bid, and just a ground swell of and clammer for transparency and consensus. But come on, I mean.
After all that you think it's a lackluster choice?
Oh no, I have no problem with Gregg. I have no problem with [Gerardo] “Tata” Martino, or any of the names that were floated out there. I actually didn't have any problem. He'll be prepared to answers questions as to why this took so long. Why it couldn't have been announced earlier? They'll skirt around it, as they should. But now we can get the thing going. Gregg, I'm sure he'll tell you, he's not about being sexy. He doesn't bring that sexisness that [Jürgen] Klinsmann did in terms of name recognition or excitement from the masses, but, ultimately, he's there to win. That's what's going to drive this whole thing, whether he qualifies the team, whether people feel that there is progress or evolution.
Do you think it's a step forward?
Well you know, look, it's the first time we have ever had a former player for the U.S. be a coach. I think that's going to be interesting, and I think he's coming in under more pressure now and tainted because of the process. That's not his fault, that's just the reality of the situation. It will be interesting to see if he harnesses that in a certain way. I think one of the bigger questions out there is this notion that representing the U.S. is somehow lost its luster. And just because [Atlanta United’s] Michael Parkhurst says something doesn't make it true. I would be incredibly saddened and angry if that were true, and we got to that point. I know there are others that will argue that we are at that point. While I certainly feel that there's been damage, I don't think it's as dire as Michael Parkhurst makes it out to be. If it is there's much much bigger problems, and there are people who will argue that there are much bigger problems, and I'm being naive thinking that.
Me personally, as a Red Bull supporter, the week before the MLS semifinals they had Tyler Adams and Aaron Long play against Italy, and they played the full 90 minutes. The supporters were pissed about it.
Well from a club perspective, I can understand that. From a fan perspective, I can see that. I'm just talking about even in the darkest times or whatever. When I wasn't starting or I was feuding with a coach or whatever, I was being an asshole. Even if those dark times, it never occurred to me to not pick up the phone, or that I wouldn't fly anywhere. At 48 years old, if they called right now, I would go anywhere to do that. The privilege to represent your country is something special. When that flame is extinguished, I'm not sure there's anything coming back from that. I don't think there's any coming back from that. I don't think it's been extinguished, but it is flickering.
What do you think about Tyler Adams joining RB Leipzig?
I'm happy for him, I'm happy for the league. He certainly has a lot of talent and promise, and the Bundesliga is really, really good at fostering young talent, especially from here. They have no problem with American talent.
Atlanta made the MLS Cup Final. Controversial in your opinion?
In what way?
Two goals called back, video review.
Oh my God, are we really doing this? Come on, your team has no business being in the final for the way that they played that first game. Had nothing to do with VAR, had nothing to do with referees.
The first call back wasn't kind of bullshit?
Which one was the first one?
The one where Alex Muyl got the screening call.
You can't stand in front of the goalkeeper, what are you talking about?
Do you think it was the right call?
It was the right call, it was the right call. I wanted that to happen, because I wanted that type of game to happen, but it's the right call. I know it sucks for you, but the damage was done in that first game where you come out, as I said, you betray everything that you are in terms of this high-pressing team. I know [head coach] Chris Armas, and I'm sure he's got a reason for it.
You didn't have Kemar Lawrence in the back.
The success of your team and the machine is contingent on Kemar Lawrence, then he's the designated player you should pay him $6 million a year.
I mean they probably should.
I love it, believe me, I voted for Lawrence for Defender of the Year, and he is awesome. But the whole point of having a system and style of play—yes, it's dependent on having the right players, but you have to have people that can approximate the position if and when those players get hurt. Otherwise it's just having really good players and running them around.
I was down in Atlanta for that match, and it was the first time I had been there. I know everyone wants to applaud them for putting 70,000 people in the seats. But the takeaway that everyone I know had was that it feels a bit phony.
I mean look, that's the same argument that people have put upon Seattle. Sterile, artificial, manufactured. If I was a Red Bulls fan, I would say that same thing. This is what's it's about. They don't care, they'll be there 70,000 strong on Saturday, and the Red Bulls won't. I did a thing for a podcast just before I came out here where I say they are the new standard bearer. They are the super club right now, and that can be taken away, because this Saturday is really, really important for their whole brand, and being, and what they've built but in two years. It is pretty phenomenal even the most hardened Red Bulls fan or anti-Atlanta fan or Orlando fan has to tip their hat to what they have done.
After the Atlanta match, the media had the brilliant idea to interview Brad Guzan in front of the South Ward and all hell broke loose in the stands. Beer cans were thrown at him, security ran down, fights broke out with security. Do you think that being in the media you have a responsibility to avoid creating these situations?
Sure, and I talked about this with producers. There's a fine balance, because we are there to tell a story, but we are also there to find and to not to prop up moments of interest and aesthetics that are interesting. There are times where they are provocative, so you never want to put a person [in a situation] or initiate anything. So, yeah, absolutely you have a responsibility to do things that are appropriate for safety and health and all those things that are important. You can do things that can agitate, and you can create situations that maybe on the surface look good, but ultimately you're doing the game a disservice by doing it. We all want pretty pictures, crazy pictures all that kind of stuff. There's a reason why “if it bleeds it leads” and all that kind of stuff. I think we all have a responsibility to make sure we are telling the story, and we are not manufacturing the story.
What's your prediction for MLS Cup Final?
I think Atlanta is a better team, just from top to bottom. I think Portland's a smart team. Atlanta is like this shark where it just seeks, hunts, finds, kills, destroys, right with dead black eyes. There's no romanticism or romantic part of Atlanta, and you know Portland is kind of like that seal. They are always in fear of messing up, and yet they somehow figure out a way to survive. They are worried about those predators, but they find a way to do things, and they can live a long life. It's a very different approach, very different coaches. I think Portland is going to go in there with an understanding that they don't have to entertain. They are not responsible for playing a beautiful game or anything like that and we have seen at times, not for the Red Bulls because it was against character, but sometimes when you do frustrate Atlanta, they can have problems because they want to run, they just want to go. [Miguel] Almirón is just incredible when he gets on the run. He's really quite amazing, he reminds me of Peter Novak from many, many years ago, who was faster with the ball than without the ball, which is really crazy.
Did you see him get hit with the keeper's glove that was thrown by a supporter?
Yeah, that was ridiculous.
He just feel to the ground.
That poor kid, I think it was a kid that got kicked out.
Do the U.S. qualify for the next World Cup?
Yes, we qualify for the next World Cup.
It's not going to come down to a rainy match in Trinidad?
No, it will not come down to a rematch. I have, in my time in soccer—and I've been around for a long time—I can honestly say that this is the lowest point in terms of how we think about ourselves as a soccer-playing nation. However, I am a romantic and an optimist when it comes to what we are. While I do think there are parts of the system that are broken and need to be examined, it is not something that needs to be torn down. I do believe [that] like that phoenix we will rise from what are now, some ashes, and be good again. But be good in a way that we are proud of that is interesting, that is exciting, that is entertaining, and we will go on. It's not just about 2022, now with this 2026 thing, that's a really nice beacon, if you will, to shoot for. It's going to be fun, it's going to be a fun eight years.