Someday Alexi Lalas knows he’s going to have to wake up: The incredible dream that has made him wealthy and given him far more than his 15 minutes of fame will end eventually.
He has never been confused with any of the most gifted players in the world, or even in the United States, yet with his long red mane and goatee he has become the face of American soccer.
“There are many, many soccer players who have more pure soccer skill in their pinky toes than I’ll have in my entire body,” Lalas says. “I’m not going to dribble through a team; might do something screwy on the field that will get me noticed.
“A lot of times I have no clue why I’m here. But I love it. It’s great. Sometimes I get the feeling somebody’s going to tell me, ‘Sorry, it wasn’t your number we picked.”’ While the star of Major League Soccer’s New England Revolution might not know how he got famous, his girlfriend does know exactly when.
“It was the World Cup semifinal,” says Jill McNeal, recalling the moments before the 1994 Brazil-Sweden match at the Rose Bowl. “We were walking across the parking lot - just like we would have been able to do two weeks before - when all of sudden these people recognized Alexi. We were surrounded. Security had to come and escort us into the stadium. It was scary.”
Lalas’ World Cup had ended nine days earlier, when eventual champion Brazil beat the United States 1-0 on July 4 in Pasadena.
But it wasn’t before Lalas became one of five Americans to play every minute of their four games, had his now well-recognized mug beamed into homes around the world, and eventually became the only American to be named to the World Cup’s honorable mention all-tournament team.
From there it was on to Italy to become the first American to play in that country’s famed first division, with Padova. And a year a later it was the Copa America - the South American nations championship - in Uruguay, where the United States finished fourth and Lalas was named to the tournament’s best 11.
“He’s got the beard, the hair. You can’t miss him,” says Eric Wynalda, a teammate from the U.S. national team who also plays for the San Jose Clash. “It’s a good thing. I kind of enjoy my privacy. But he’s built for it. He handles it so well. He’s won over those who didn’t believe in him.”
Lalas and his red mop of hair didn’t just spring out of the ground in the summer of 1994. It just seems that way.
He made his debut with the U.S. national team against Canada in 1990; played as a member of the U.S. Olympic team in 1992, and scored one of his most memorable goals - a header, naturally - against England in a surprising 2-0 victory in June 1993.
His list of accomplishments and awards are equal to or better than those of any American to ever play this kind of football with a round ball: selected to FIFA All-Star Games, U.S. Soccer Player of the Year (1995); two Olympics; World Cup; and All-Copa American team.
But he has never been known as a technically gifted player. In fact, he has been criticized by some as a lead-footed defender with the touch of a tank.
He has overcome his detractors with wit, a strong will, an anything-goes personality and a humility rarely seen in professional sports.
In his two seasons in Italy, he was known as “Buffalo Bill,” a reference to his wild look and flamboyance.
He returned to the United States in 1996, one of about a dozen Americans playing overseas to do so, to pursue what many of them consider a sacred calling: starting a professional soccer league here.
MLS and the Revolution put him out front as often as they could: drop-kicking a ball off Phil Hartman’s rear-end on Leno, trading barbs with Letterman and Conan, MTV, even making the presentation of the “All-Hair Team” at the MLS Awards dinner last October.
“He is the player who is most likely to appear on everybody’s ‘I-want-to-hang-out-with-him’ list,” MLS commissioner Doug Logan says. “He has great charisma, does not take himself too seriously; he’s got a hip, devil-may-care attitude about life. And what you see is what you get. He’s the same way in private as he is in public.”
These days you can see Lalas in any number of TV commercials, checking out the accommodations in France for Adidas for the 1998 World Cup; reminiscing about soccer as an old man for All Sport; or breaking cement blocks with his head to promote MLS games.
It’s all part of an endorsement package that, along with his MLS salary, reportedly earned Lalas between $1.5 million and $2 million last year. His MLS salary this year has been bumped up to the league maximum of $192,500.