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Apr 19, 2006

Coexistence the key for the Galaxy

Throughout his playing career, Alexi Lalas' look was anything but corporate. The long hair, the goatee, the glib quotes, and even his spat in 1998 with then national team (and current L.A.) head coach Steve Sampson, all contributed to Lalas' flamboyant image. But since the end of his playing days, something of a metamorphosis has occurred. Lalas has become a company man, more specifically an AEG man, and that, more than anything, explains his return to Los Angeles to take up the reins as the Galaxy's general manager.

The move sees Lalas end a two-year apprenticeship that began with the San Jose Earthquakes and ended with the team formerly known as the MetroStars. And it's a development that had been in the works even before the sudden death of former Los Angeles general manager Doug Hamilton. When Hamilton was named head of AEG Sports late last year, Lalas was one of the names bandied about as his eventual replacement. The passing of Hamilton and the sale of the MetroStars to Red Bull merely accelerated that process.

There is of course good and bad in Lalas' allegiance to AEG. The good is that Lalas climbs yet another rung on the AEG corporate ladder. Call his relocation from San Jose to New York and then to Los Angeles a lateral move if you like, but there is no doubting that the former U.S. international has now been charged with running the jewel in AEG's soccer crown. AEG, and by extension the Galaxy, now get to reap the benefits of Lalas' crash course in sports management.

But while the Galaxy are no doubt pleased with their new hire, Lalas' ascension has its drawbacks as well. In a league in which AEG still owns one-third of the teams, there are concerns that such devotion to the corporate cause comes at the expense of the teams further down in the AEG pecking order. It explains why San Jose fans took to calling Lalas, "GAlexi" even before his departure. And I'll venture a guess that Lalas' boast to turn the New York franchise into the league's first "superclub" is one that is ringing a little hollow at the moment.

That's not to say that I think Lalas tanked it in San Jose or New York. Far from it. But losing a general manager weakens an organization, especially in the middle of a season. One only has to look at the questions surrounding the job security of Red Bull's head coach Mo Johnston to see the domino effect this has had. Yes, Red Bull might have granted AEG permission to take Lalas off their hands, but the outcome would have been the same if AEG still owned the New York team.

Lalas stated that the move was a personal choice, echoing the comments he made when he essentially left a sinking ship in San Jose for the MetroStars last June. And personal it might have been, but name me another sport in the country where a general manager, by his own choice, would be heading up his third team in a little more than 10 months. It's simple. This kind of thing happens only in MLS, and the league ought to make it harder for something like this to occur. Other sports leagues have rules against tampering for a reason. It helps prevent instability, which for some reason, MLS has yet to figure out.

Of course, this will matter not at all to the fans in Los Angeles. The only thing they care about is if Lalas and Sampson can work together to make the kind of personnel moves that will keep the Galaxy on top. It's far from a slam-dunk and not because of Lalas' testy relationship with Sampson during the '98 World Cup, when Sampson benched several veterans, including Lalas, and then watched a player revolt ensue. The coach and his former charge have long since made peace on that front. Instead, what matters most is that there is a collaborative relationship where there is at least some commonality in how they evaluate players.

In San Jose, that was precisely the kind of arrangement Lalas had with head coach Dominic Kinnear, where in 2005 the two rebuilt a side decimated by player defections. According to Kinnear, his relationship with Lalas was a big factor in the team's success.

"I think we see the game the same way," says Kinnear of Lalas. "And I think we see the American game the same way. We value guys who are hard working. You look at who we brought in, and there was 100 percent agreement."

In that effort, Lalas and Kinnear showed a penchant for acquiring proven MLS players like Alejandro Moreno and Brad Davis, and nearly every one of those moves paid off. When Lalas moved on to the MetroStars, he continued that tactic, albeit with mixed results. For every Tony Meola, there was a Ryan Suarez, although it's too soon to judge Lalas' more recent moves.

This method stands in stark contrast to Sampson's approach. The Galaxy coach has performed decently in the draft with players like Ugo Ihemelu. And trades have seen Sampson obtain some solid MLS veterans like Todd Dunivant and Cornell Glen. (Anyone including Landon Donovan in that group is ignoring the fact that Donovan basically fell into Sampson's lap.) But many of Sampson's acquisitions have been foreign players who have flopped. In 2005, the heralded trio of Pando Ramirez, Pablo Chinchilla, and Michael Umana arrived from Central America. None of them managed to stick around for more than a season, even though Ramirez netted the game-winning goal in last year's MLS Cup final.

These different approaches might yet be a source of friction, although Lalas states that finding a middle ground shouldn't be a problem.

"[Sampson] has immersed himself in the MLS culture over the past couple of years," says Lalas. "And just the way that he thinks about things is very interesting. I have a feeling that I'm going to learn a tremendous amount from Steve, and vice versa. I'm here to make Steve's job as easy as possible, and to get him the tools that he needs to have a successful team."

Lalas adds that while he'll be involved with personnel matters, those decisions will lie mostly with Sampson.

"Ninety-nine percent of the time, I'll defer to the coach after I've said my piece," says Lalas. "And there are times where I'll trump him for what I feel is the greater good. That kind of relationship works out pretty well I think."

But if Sampson endures another mediocre regular season, that relationship could quickly turn sour. When Lalas fired then-MetroStars head coach Bob Bradley on Oct. 5, it could be argued that Los Angeles had underachieved even more than the Metros. Playing in the much more competitive Eastern Conference, the Metros had just three fewer points than the Galaxy with two games in hand. But the fact that Hamilton hired Sampson meant that the Los Angeles coach had perhaps a bit more job security than his league record warranted. That security no longer exists now that Lalas is in charge, and it's easy to imagine that a repeat of the Galaxy's regular season struggles will see Lalas display less patience than his predecessor did.

In the meantime, Lalas continues to offer Sampson his "full support." And Sampson will be hoping that the same will be true at season's end.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com