Lalas' game is matching his hip hype WORLD CUP 1994

June 26, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

MISSION VIEJO, Calif. -- As unlikely as it is that the United States has a chance to win its round-robin group in the World Cup when it plays Romania today at the Rose Bowl, it is just as unlikely that defender Alexi Lalas has matched his hype with his performance in the first two U.S. games.

A soccer player's hype can't begin to compare with a baseball or basketball star's, of course, but Lalas, a tall, 24-year-old defender from suburban Detroit, did a pretty good job of showing up everywhere before the Cup. He went on "The Tonight Show." He was on the cover of Sports Illustrated for Kids. The French sports magazine L'Equipe singled him out as the one U.S. player to profile.

Why? Not because he is the best player on the team. Because he is different.

His hair is a tangle of red curls that hangs to his shoulders. His red-orange goatee is four inches long. He looks like a cross between Ronald McDonald and Axl Rose. When he puts on his John Lennon sunglasses, he is as hip as hip gets.

He carries around clumps of hair from a 3-year-old haircut in a plastic bag. He plays searing rock music to relax. He is a prep school kid with a wicked sense of humor and good grammar. His teammates call him "the wizard." His mother is a poet.

His favorite drink?

"No question," he said the other day, "Slurpees."

Baseball would kick him out of the clubhouse. Football would shave his head. He is different. But different can work these days.

"Alexi Lalas is the perfect person to sell something to anyone under the age of 25," said mega-agent Leigh Steinberg, who represents the U.S. players as a group.

He gets the biggest cheers. He signs the most autographs. He gives the best interviews.

"In this country, soccer was a sport for dorks until just before I started playing [12 years ago]," he told a group of international reporters the other day, after the United States had upset Colombia.

"What ees a dork?" asked a man from Belgium.

"Here, let me spell it for you," Lalas said, taking the reporter's pen and note pad.

Funny. Cool.

The perfect face to put on a sport trying to wangle a place in the American mainstream.

But what about his game? What about the substance to go with his style? Well, that was a bit of a problem.

It wasn't that he lacked talent. He was the college player of the year at Rutgers, a member of the 1992 U.S. Olympic team, one of U.S. coach Bora Milutinovic's favorites for his hard-working ways. But he had never played in Europe, and had an awkward, stiff style.

"There are people on this team with more talent in their little toe than I have in my whole body," Lalas said.

Was he a legitimate World Cupper? The question merited asking. Milutinovic was criticized by some in the U.S. soccer community for sticking with such a limited, unproven player as the defense proved consistently porous in practice matches before the Cup.

But since the Cup started, Lalas has been every bit as much a surprise as his team. Covering ground with long strides, he has been flawless, impenetrable. He so discouraged Colombia's Faustino Asprilla, one of the game's top scorers, that Asprilla was benched at halftime.

"If you're going to succeed in sports, you need to analyze your ability and recognize your strengths and weaknesses," Lalas said. "I'm in there to mark my man out of the game, tackle hard and give the ball to people who can do something with it. Nothing more. That's what I work on."

Said fellow defender Marcelo Balboa: "Alexi has come a long way. When he first joined the [national] team, he basically just kicked the heck out of people. He's grown a lot. He's a touch player now."

He is also a celebrity, which clearly amazes him. He watched the last World Cup from the stands four years ago in Italy; he had just graduated from high school and was bumming around Europe "chasing girls, drinking beer and watching soccer" with friends. Just another knucklehead with his face painted.

"It never occurred to me that I might ever be playing," he said. "My life has changed so much, particularly in the last year. Sometimes, I have to stop and realize that the only thing that matters is how I perform on the field. And when you look like I do, you better play well."

He battles the pressure in typically unusual ways. He keeps some of the hair that Milutinovic made him cut when he first joined the national team as a collegian in 1991. "I keep it to remind me of how much I had to go through to get this far," he said.

He also plays music. A member of a band that recently released a CD on an independent label, he is happiest with his guitar in his hand.

"Music defines me," he said. "The team is real cool about it. They understand that it's important to me, that it enables me to do what I do on the field. They all bought the CD. Bora even came to see me [on stage] once. He doesn't really care for the music, but he respects it. I need to learn some Frank Sinatra for him."

What happens after the World Cup? Who knows? Lalas is not signed with a European club team, as are many of his teammates.

"I guess I'll just hang out, play some music, drink a beer and hope someone calls me," he said the other day. "I definitely don't have any plans. I'll play anywhere."

He looked at the reporters around him. "Do you know anyone that might want me?" he said.

"Maybe," said a Swiss reporter, smiling.

# "Cool," Lalas said.

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