Sports: Lalaspalooza

Alexi Lalas bounds out of his apartment in Hoboken wearing black sunglasses and a RATT T-shirt, a cell phone jammed in his back pocket. Passersby regard him with puzzled curiosity, as though they can tell he’s a celebrity – they’re just not sure why. A teenage pizza-delivery boy pedals past on a bike, then brakes abruptly and shouts over his shoulder, “Yo, Lalas, man, what happened at the World Cup? Why did you guys lose?” Lalas smiles but has no chance to respond; his phone is ringing – it’s the Charlie Rose show, wanting to know where to pick him up for tonight’s taping. A minute later, the phone rings again; the MetroStars P.R. director wants to schedule another TV appearance, but Lalas explains he’ll be in Memphis, mixing his rock album.

With shaggy red hair, a long goatee, and an assortment of rings and earrings, Lalas emerged as the reigning icon of American soccer when he starred on the U.S. team in the 1994 World Cup. Two years later, he heroically returned from a stint in the Italian League to provide star power to the then-fledgling Major League Soccer.

And this figured to be the year it all came together for the 28-year-old Lalas – he’d have another shot at the World Cup and a chance to play for MLS’s New York team, the MetroStars. Heading into its third season, the league badly needed a more competitive, not to mention telegenic, club in the nation’s biggest sports market and arranged to have Lalas move over from the New England team. “It’s smart for us to have Lalas in New York, where he’s accessible to the national media,” says MLS commissioner Douglas Logan. “The way he comes across on TV, the way he talks about the game, it’s how we want to present ourselves.”

One would have been mistaken, however, to expect Lalas’s on-the-field impact to match his off-the-field exposure. One player can only make so much difference to a soccer team, after all, particularly if that player is a defender like Lalas, who lacks flashy ball skills and thrives in a conservative formation (which the U.S. team played in 1994).

The MetroStars got off to another slow start this season and, in fact, only began playing well when Lalas (and star midfielder Tab Ramos) left the team to compete in the World Cup. The experience in France turned out to be a disaster. Lalas found himself on the bench for the first time in his pro career and made headlines by bad-mouthing the coach. Then he returned to the MetroStars and promptly cost them a game against the Colorado Rapids by misplaying a ball in front of the goal. That was followed by an embarrassing home loss to last-place Tampa Bay.

But just as another season seemed to be slipping away, the MetroStars ticked off three wins in a row, thanks largely to some excellent goalkeeping from Tony Meola and the rediscovered scoring prowess of the brawny Ecuadoran striker Eduardo Hurtado.

Lalas believes the team’s playing better as it becomes closer off the field, mentioning a recent excursion to Life on Bleecker Street, where he and several teammates watched a show by Sebastian Bach, the ex-Skid Row singer. “The best part is that I went backstage and met Ace Frehley,” he says.

Lalas plans to spend the off-season – his first break from soccer in more than five years – touring in support of his album, Ginger. He’s the first new artist ever signed by CMC International Records, the label known for recycling eighties acts like Styx, Night Ranger, and Pat Benatar, and he wants to make sure he isn’t perceived as a gimmick. “I’ve been playing guitar for longer than I’ve been kicking a soccer ball,” says Lalas, who believes his teammates will support his musical career. “I’ve got them listening to metal in the locker room; that’s an important step. Metal can really bring a team together.”

Sports: Lalaspalooza