Into the limelight once more
In many ways, it would appear that the Los Angeles Galaxy scored a coup when they secured Alexi Lalas to replace the late Doug Hamilton as president and general manager. The executive's rise through the soccer ranks of Anschutz Entertainment Group has been positively meteoric. Lalas had gone from player for AEG's Galaxy (he retired after 2003) to managing the Earthquakes and from there, to New York, where he was given the same post with the team formally known as the MetroStars.
As recently as last week, Lalas was denying such a move was in the works, yet the transition had an air of inevitability from the start.
AEG was clearly enamored with Lalas. The security and loyalty he enjoyed in that fold simply wasn't there with the foreign management that came to take charge of the Red Bulls. The time given to prove himself capable of setting an underachieving New York team on the right track would be shorter than Lalas probably cared to worry about.
The Galaxy job, however, is a plum post. The one team in Major League Soccer to record a profit, the organization has had exemplary success on and off the field, never once missing the league playoffs and leading MLS in attendance figures every year.
"This is obviously a wonderful opportunity and a heck of a challenge," Lalas observed at the press conference announcing his arrival in L.A. "I don't take it lightly. I'm filling some incredibly big shoes."
Indeed -- the league's Executive of the Year award wasn't renamed the Doug Hamilton Award as a polite gesture to his memory. Hamilton won the trophy three out of the 10 years it was awarded. The 2005 season was his most successful yet, as the team won the double (MLS and U.S. Open Cups) and Hamilton oversaw a record season for sponsorships and ticket sales.
Lalas may not have the corporate or coaching experience that Hamilton brought to his position, but he does bring something that few can. U.S. soccer has few recognizable icons, but the red-headed, guitar-playing former defender who once played in Italy's Serie A is one of them.
Through name recognition alone, Lalas brought increased visibility to every club he was a part of, even as a player. Yet despite his talent and pedigree, he struggled to make as sizable an impact on the field, finally hitting his stride with his fourth and final MLS team, the Galaxy.
His club management career could be similarly lacking in substance thus far. It's hard to take a true measure of what Lalas has really contributed to either San Jose or New York, partly because his tenure was so short each time.
Lalas raised the profile of the teams in the media and the market, even if it was sometimes for off-the-wall suggestions like advocating bigger goals. He helped raise ticket totals, another indicator of progress. Lalas also had a hand in putting together the San Jose team that recovered from losing Landon Donovan to go undefeated at home in league play in 2005. He aggressively traded up in the 2006 SuperDraft to bring Marvell Wynne to New York.
Yet he failed to secure any stadium deal or local ownership for San Jose that might have saved the Earthquakes from becoming the Houston Dynamo.
In New York, some moves he made there were even more inconclusive. Lalas was reprimanded after comments he made suggesting D.C. United phenom Freddy Adu might be happier playing in New York. Firing coach Bob Bradley just before the start of the 2005 playoffs didn't get the team past the first round of the playoffs. A public spat with star Amado Guevara left many unsure the midfielder would even begin the season with the Red Bulls.
While that might not seem like an impressive resume, AEG has been drawn to style over substance before.
There's no other way to explain the ousting of Peter Wilt, the Chicago Fire's beloved and respected general manager, for John Guppy, a man best known for his sales skills to corporations. Guppy was also the progenitor of questionable publicity campaigns, most notably Metro Playoff Fever -- an illness fans were supposed to catch despite the team's dreary postseason record.
With Lalas, AEG might have picked the right showman for the job. He is bright and personable and seemingly up to the task of competing for the media spotlight in a town that considers the art a blood sport.
"This is a wonderful organization. There's very little that I need to do," stated Lalas, noting the team's success.
"You can make a real good argument that I'm being given the opportunity to take over what a lot of people feel is already the first 'Super Club' to emerge from Major League Soccer."
If Lalas is an impressive figurehead for the Galaxy, though, he's also one that comes with a certain amount of baggage.
Lalas, who while playing for the national team in 1998 criticized coach Steve Sampson's leadership, now will have to work alongside Sampson.
Even if the two have smoothed those hard feelings over with the years that have passed, Lalas will also do business only a few doors down from Bradley, the coach he personally fired only months ago.
While noting that the history might actually add to the intra-city rivalry, Lalas downplayed the situation with the Chivas USA coach.
"We're not going to have a fight in the parking lot," he deadpanned. "Ultimately you move on and you don't dwell on the past."
Lalas must still navigate the tricky path of friendships with former Galaxy teammates that must change due to his new power over their careers.
"I have a history with a lot of these players," he said. "Although I know them personally, I still have expectations for them. Those expectations supersede any type of personal relationship or any history we have."
The lack of a solid administrational record notwithstanding, AEG believes Lalas is the right man for the job. Shawn Hunter, president of AEG Sports, made it clear that during its candidate hunt AEG was partial to Lalas all along.
"When we began our search," Hunter said, "there really wasn't anybody out there that we felt comfortable with, other than Alexi, of stepping into those shoes and having the potential to grow it and continuing to make not only this club, but this league, relevant and passionate on a stage like it is around the world."
The curtain is rising on the next act of the Lalas show. The club and the player were a hit back when they teamed for their first MLS title in 2002. Regardless of whether he truly deserves his new position, Los Angeles has fond memories of Lalas, and this is the city known for giving hopefuls big breaks.
Once the show starts, however, Lalas has to prove himself worthy of his top billing.
Andrea Canales covers MLS and women's college soccer for ESPN Soccernet.com. She also writes for topdrawersoccer.com and soccer365.com. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org