Lalas walks into ideal situation
The MLS off-season is getting stranger by the minute.
Forget the signing of Freddy Adu, Peter Nowak heading to D.C. United to succeed Ray Hudson as head coach, or Fulham's signings of Brian McBride and Carlos Bocanegra. The most surprising move of the winter came on Tuesday when the San Jose Earthquakes named Alexi Lalas as their president and general manager.
Yes, that Alexi Lalas.
The one whose scruffy goatee, wild red hair, guitar-playing exploits and candidness with the media corps perfectly complemented his hard-nosed play in the center of the U.S. defense to help transform him into a cross-over icon during the 1994 World Cup.
His look once screamed anti-establishment. And now he's a suit.
Brilliant move to bring in another former U.S. National Team player to go with coaches Dominic Kinnear and John Doyle or bold P.R. stunt?
Maybe a little bit of both.
On the marketing side, Lalas' name and image remain well-known entities. Long before Landon Donovan or Tim Howard or Freddy Adu ever hit the scene, Lalas was the definitive face of U.S. Soccer. That was the case whether he was in his prime or not, and also regardless of how well players such as John Harkes, Tab Ramos, and, later, Claudio Reyna, were faring as professionals.
It wasn't an easy task, but the former Rutgers star embraced it for several years. In the process, he tirelessly talked up MLS, U.S. Soccer in general, and did whatever he could, no matter the medium or its reach, to get people chatting about soccer in this country.
At the same time, Lalas' move to the front-office isn't exactly a complete shocker. That's what former players do. In every sport. Just look to the NBA where the current crop of presidents and GM's in charge of making basketball operations decisions includes Larry Bird (Indiana), Isiah Thomas (New York), Danny Ainge (Boston) and Jerry West (Memphis).
Some succeed, such as West, who will go down as one of the best players and executives the league has ever seen. While others, like Michael Jordan's tenure with the Washington Wizards, were a train wreck.
Some former players get in a position of power and serve as a know-it-all in every capacity. Especially as far as player management goes. Many former athletes hold a belief that being able to play the game means that they're able to evaluate players and make personnel decisions with the same level of success.
It just doesn't work that way.
Lalas has already told those in his inner circle that he'll leave the player part of the job to Kinnear and his staff, choosing to zero-in on how to make things better for the players and the staff, as well as how to reach out to the strong soccer community in the San Jose area.
That's a great start. One that shows that this isn't just the next "gig" for Lalas while he decides whether he wants to be a coach or make a return to the broadcast booth.
He'll undoubtedly be popular with the growing number of people within the league that quietly chatter about how many of the league's general managers are out of touch with the players and serve their own agendas more than what's good for the players and the club as a whole.
What's most important is that we're finally seeing members from those 1990 and 1994 World Cups teams getting involved on the coaching and management side.
We're seeing it with Marcelo Balboa, who recently signed with his former team, the Colorado Rapids, for a wide-ranging role as a "Soccer Ambassador" for both the team and Kroenke Sports Enterprises.
It probably won't be too long before we see either Tab Ramos, John Harkes or Eric Wynalda -- the other preeminent soccer players of the 1990s -- involved in the same sort of capacity, as well.
As far as soccer players go in this country, Lalas' career has run the gamut. Having been capped 96 times over an eight-year span for the U.S. that included two Olympics and two World Cups, he ranks eighth in both appearances and games started for the National Team, as well as tied for sixth with Harkes in assists (11).
He's also worn a lot of uniforms as a professional, having played for four of the 10 MLS teams at one time after playing for Padova in Serie A in 1994-95 to become the first U.S. player to ever play in Italy's vaunted top division that was considered the best in the world when Lalas was signed.
Lalas was an instant hit in the broadcasting world, as well, dispensing his knowledge as an analyst for four different networks while covering MLS and the Sydney Games during his "year off" in 2000.
In that time, he also hosted a show for Nickelodeon and served as Rob Stone's co-host on ESPN2's weekly highlight show "Extra Time". Between soccer and his broadcasting endeavors, he's even found time to record three albums with his band The Gypsies, which opened for Hootie and the Blowfish during their 1998 European Tour.
Probably his greatest accomplishment came in 2002.
He re-dedicated himself to the game he had burned himself out of and played arguably his best season in MLS with the Los Angeles Galaxy, which earned him a spot on the Pepsi Best XI.
No longer sporting the distinctive long hair and goatee, Lalas' game became more sophisticated and his leadership was invaluable for Sigi Schmid's backline over the past three seasons. Last year, he played in 22 games and started 19.
It's this sort of experience that AEG President Timothy J. Leiweke was looking for to run all business and soccer operations for his club.
"There is no one as qualified to help us take the sport and franchise to the next level as Alexi," said Leiweke during a press conference on Tuesday afternoon. "He's been a National Team star, the first true American-born star in the MLS and now has the opportunity to make history as he demonstrates the integration of American soccer's impact on the sport by serving as the first MLS player to be named a club President."
MLS Commissioner Don Garber said much of the same.
"I am thrilled to see another former player join the management of an MLS team, especially someone who has accomplished as much as Alexi Lalas," said Garber. "Alexi has always been more than a soccer player in this country. He is a pioneer who understands where the game has come from and where it needs to go. His leadership qualities, energy and unique ability to relate to people at all levels of the sport will serve him well in his new role."
Lalas, 33, has a tough act to follow. Johnny Moore, yet another example of a successful player turned executive, accomplished quite a lot in his two years as GM.
On the business side, attendance rose 14 percent under his watch in that first year alone. An increase in sponsorship was seen right away.
On the player side, it was under his reign that the Earthquakes plucked Brian Mullan away from the L.A. Galaxy for next to nothing, discovered Brian Ching after watching him play for the Seattle Sounders in the A-League and made several shrewd draft picks such as Todd Dunivant, Arturo Alvarez and Jamil Walker.
The five-time MLS all-star will be aided by joining a team that's built to succeed once again after winning two of the last three MLS Cups this past November.
Despite seeing head coach Frank Yallop leave his post in San Jose to serve as the manager for the Canadian National Team, not much will change with Kinnear and Doyle in charge.
Lalas has the best player in the league in Landon Donovan, the reigning Goalkeeper of the Year in Pat Onstad and strong veteran leadership all over the roster including his longtime teammate Jeff Agoos. You can also add promising young players such as 2004 SuperDraft selections Ryan Cochrane and Steve Cronin to go with the aforementioned picks from last year.
If there was a situation to walk into, this is the ideal one.
"This is a tremendous opportunity to join an already established, championship team and to direct their continued growth from both the business end as well as player personnel," said Lalas. "I would like to thank Tim and everyone at AEG for their faith in me and pledge to the entire San Jose Earthquake organization and their fans that we will continue to build a club that will be successful, profitable and respected both on and off the field."
Marc Connolly covers soccer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.