Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Wherein Greg Lalas Disagrees With Me

Recently, I hit up Greg Lalas--former professional soccer player, writer, provocateur and general soccer aficionado--for an interview. After a few technical difficulties, I managed to catch the white whale. He graciously answered all of my questions and challenged me to a duel some of my positions. It is also apparent there is no bigger advocate of American soccer than Greg Lalas which is something it needs. Something UF does not do well with, but should try harder.

Before we jump into the interview, I want to take a minute to promote a couple of Greg's recent pieces that are excellent reads. The first, the Bill of Rights of American Soccer fans. The second, a Bill of Responsibilities for American Soccer Fans.

After the jump, Greg on Beckham, Donovan, dating a Lazio fan, and our favorite Chris Mannix.

Clearly you have a unique background as a soccer writer since you played in college and professionally, but did you ever envision having a writing career? Did you plan for this while in college? You now write for several outlets, SI.com, Goal.com, and NYTimes Goal Blog, how did you end up doing this?

Luck and connections. To be honest, I never really envisioned anything as a "career." But I did a lot of writing, and have been doing so since I was a pipsqueak. In college, I wrote a lot of really bad poetry and some semi-decent short fiction. Then, even when I was playing, I was writing. In 1996, while I was playing with the Tampa Bay Mutiny, I had a short play produced by the Source Theater in DC.

After I retired in 1998, I left soccer behind totally. I went to grad school for creative writing, and stumbled into a job at a magazine in Boston. But the soccer itch came back. In 2003, I was living in Greece, freelancing and writing, kind of off the grid. I decided to move back to the States, to New York, and the first thing I did was to get a hold of someone at MLSnet.com and ask about writing for the site. They said sure. My first piece was a profile of Freddy Adu, who I met up with the day before he was drafted. He was great. So I wrote a column for MLSnet.com, "The View from the Cheap Seats," for about a year, and everything snowballed from there. Next thing I knew, I was doing the TV for the Revolution.

After I wore out my welcome at MLSnet -- calling for a sitting coach's head in an article on the league website didn't sit well with certain people...but come on, Andrulis needed to go! -- I started writing the "Outside the Box" column for SI.com then I took over Goal.com USA. I've only written for NYTimes.com for special events, like this past Africa Cup of Nations.

Your brother, Alexi Lalas, is a US soccer legend and the current GM for LA Galaxy. Does this relationship help or hinder you as a writer?

Both. Being his brother has gained me access to things that many journalists don't have access to, like sources, etc. But it's a hinderance because there have been people in the past who love to slam anyone who might appear to have an advantage. Truth is, advantages come in various ways, and I think at this point, I've proven to the people who matter to me that I am a good journalist.

Also, has your brother always been so outspoken, for example his comments comparing MLS to the Premier League?

I'm not sure what comments you're referring to, but I'll surmise they are things like "MLS teams could compete in the EPL." Well, I don't think that's so outspoken because he's right. And he's not the only one who says it, by the way.

A lot of Englishmen I've talked with -- at least the ones with open minds -- say similar things.

What amazes me is that many of the people who slam Alexi for comments like that have never stopped to say, "Hey, Alexi played at the highest levels in the world, including the World Cup and Italy's Serie A. Maybe he knows a little something about this." Now, sometimes his mouth bites him in the ass, but that just goes with the territory of being in a high profile position. My favorite quote of all time: "To avoid criticism, do nothing, say nothing, be nothing." That's from Elbert Hubbard.

This is the quote I was talking about from Alexi:

"The fact that a segment of the world worships an inferior product in the Premiership is their business,'' Lalas said in an interview with The Guardian published Tuesday.
I think that it is fair to say that calling the Premiership and the quality of play in the league inferior to any other league is a bold statement. Especially considering the Champions League play the past few seasons. It is without a doubt one of the strongest leagues in the world. And, while the best of the MLS teams might be able survive relegation, it is safe to say, in my opinion, that none of them would contend for a spot in Europe. Just my opinion.

Yes, it is a bold statement. And yes, the EPL is without a doubt one of the strongest leagues. But in terms of actual soccer, it's overhyped and overpriced. No, MLS team would contend for Europe. Very true. But then, I repeat, the New England Revolution, arguably MLS's best team right now, carries a salary of around $2 million (they don't even use the whole cap available to them!), and yet, I would argue, they could contend with teams in the middle of the EPL. That says something pretty profound.

Either MLS is better than most people believe, or the EPL is not as good as everything thinks. Outside the top four and then a revolving three teams after that, the EPL is pretty mediocre. Same goes for the other leagues too. Same goes for MLS, for that matter. Unfortunately, these arguments will never be solved until the teams play against each other in a meaningful way. Maybe the CWC in 2009, if an MLS team can win the CCL.

Soccer is definitely on the rise in the states. It is more commercially viable, MLS is looking like a good investment now, and soccer is receiving more coverage than ever before, but it's not a finished product yet. What are your opinions on where the sport is headed in the US and how it needs to improve?

More money. More exposure. More fans. These are all chicken or the egg things, though. Ultimately, time seems to be the final arbiter of soccer's success. When more Americans know the game and understand its nuances and beauties, soccer's popularity will explode.

Also, in a decade or so, many of the old-school Baby Boomer sports editors at newspapers and TV channels will move on and younger, more soccer-savvy guys will take over. That will help.

Finally, there's the youth development. And it's a strange seeming paradox that I think will work best. When the US starts to consistently export young talent to Europe, like Jozy, our reputation globally as a soccer nation will improve. After that happens, players will be less reluctant to come here and play.

Along those lines, what does the U.S. need to do to develop better players?

I think we're developing pretty fantastic players.

At Unprofessional Foul we have had several email discussions about the poor track record the U.S. has in developing highly-skilled players. There are certainly well conditioned and skilled players but nothing coming close to world class, except for the goalkeepers.

So you don't consider Landon Donovan a world class player? I do. I think often we are too enamored of European and South American players and don't realize just how good some of our players are.

I think we do have a track record of developing highly skilled players. What we don't have is a track record of developing players who can step onto Europe's fields and be very good for a long time. This is why Brazil and Argentina are so revered, because for more than 50 years, their players have proven their worth. But on the face of it, is Alexandre Pato $20 million better than Jozy Altidore? No. It's just that Brazilians have a better track record of succeeding in Europe than Americans do, so it's a better risk, which means a higher transfer fee. Then there's the other issue: When you say "skilled," do you mean a Messi type or a Ballack type?

I get what your saying about "world class" players, but no, I don't think Donovan is world class when he can't get pitch time in Germany and wants to go home. Yes, he is skilled. Much more skilled than the majority of MLS, but he's not great. But, I'll say he forfeits any right to be called world-class when he decided not to stick it out in Europe. He's a big fish in a little pond now and that's how he likes it. At least Riquelme showed his talent and ability before packing it up to go home.

But why does he have to show his talent in Europe? What if Donovan shows his talent in the international game? Is Cuauhtemoc Blanco world class? Was Carlos Valderrama? Check out Pibe's record in Europe--he pretty much flamed out in Europe. Was Marco Etcheverry world class? Never played in Europe. Or a guy like Martin Palermo, who also barely had a career in Europe but is a legend in Argentina. And those are just some of the modern examples. It's absurd to say this, considering the eras, but Pele never played in Europe.

Are the MLS Academies and US Soccer Development Academies the answer?

Not necessarily. They are a start, though. It comes down to having coaches who encourage players to express themselves. But you also need the non-Ronaldinhos -- guys like Marquez and Makalele and Nesta. It'll come.

And maybe I am a bit enamored with European soccer, but we certainly haven't produced any elite players other than goalkeepers that could be considered for an all-league team in the best leagues in Europe (Brian McBride being the one exception I would think of). Maybe I should have said elite rather than world-class. Maybe Adu and Altidore will be there but they really haven't proven anything on the big stage yet. Heck, Adu had trouble getting off the bench at Benfica, although he did have coaching changes to deal with.

Freddy's gotten a bum deal. I hope Monaco works out for him. He's had so much pressure to deal with, and, if you look at it objectively, he's handled it amazingly well. I still think he will be a star -- and world class -- when all is said and done. But when thinking about his "trouble getting off the bench at Benfica," it's tantalizing to compare him to guys like Messi and Pato and other young studs.

Thing is, we only ever notice the ones that rise to the top from their respective countries. There are a hundred Messis and Patos out there, but only these two become international stars. The US, on the other hand, only has a few guys. We don't have a critical mass yet. Hell, we don't have any mass yet, although it's changing. After all, we now have a $10 million 18-year-old player. And Bradley is another one. And even Rogers, if he does well in Beijing, could move. Once we get more youngsters over there, we'll start to see some of them rise to the top.

To address your "skill" question, I would say both. No US player has ever dominated a midfield like Ballack does even now at 31. Reyna did well, but was never at that level consistently. As for Messi, maybe Altidore will be that, but those two are about the same age and Jozy hasn't done what Messi has.

See above. I'd argue that Jozy has done in MLS what Messi has done in Liga. Different scale, I admit, but still something impressive. Now that he has the chance to try his luck at the next level, we'll see just how good (or overhyped) Jozy is.

But, when I say highly skilled I am talking about the best of the best like Messi and Ballack. Have we had anybody come close to that level, ever from the US? I don't think so.

I agree. We haven't. But here's another thought: Messi and Ballack are great because they have great players around them. This is something Alexi and I have often discussed, how these great players we see, although certainly terrific in their own rights, are also buoyed by the general skill level around them. But if you surround a good MLS player with good talent, he will be good too. Could he be great?

Think about this: Joseph Ngwenya, the Zimbabwean striker who used to be with Houston and then went to Austria, where he basically flopped, is right now training with Bayern Munich. He played on Friday in the German SuperCup against Dortmund. How can this be? How is this guy from MLS, from the US college system, and a flop in Austria, now getting time with one of the best clubs in the world? Well, partly, it's because of his relationship with assistant coach Martin Vazquez (former Tampa Bay Mutiny player, Chivas USA assistant coach, and college coach). But it's mainly because they think that Ngwenya, surrounded by good players, can have an impact. Strange, huh?

There are rumors that ESPN may be pursuing EPL games in the near future and changing ESPN Classic to ESPN3 and focusing it on soccer. Unprofessional Foul has debated whether this is a good or bad thing. What is your view? Is this a positive for soccer in the US? For the MLS?

I've heard this same thing. I think it's a great sign about the popularity of soccer if a juggernaut like ESPN realizes they need to get into it even more than they already are. But I worry about the lack of competition in the soccer TV space. I don't know if they are going to be acquiring FSC's rights or Setanta's. But either way, there might end up being less soccer on TV because of it. On the other side, I think it's a positive for MLS, sure, because it will better educate the American public about the game. That's certainly good.

The old adage is that any press is good press, but it seems you're not of that opinion. You called out in your last SI.com piece Marc Stein and your fellow SI.com writer Chris Mannix for their recent writings on soccer. Although, I must note you have amended your opinion on Stein subsequently. Unprofessional Foul found the Mannix piece reprehensible and did a quite long post on it. Why do you think the Mannixes of the world continue to write this tripe? And, do you care to expand your criticism of Mannix and Stein?

I realized after the fact that I was unduly harsh on Stein, which is why I added the endnote to that article. I knew he was a soccer fan, so I should've cut him some slack. I didn't particularly like his article. It was really well written, but it just proved precisely how soccer is a sideline for him. He's a great writer, and I'd love to see him doing more soccer writing, real soccer journalism. But he knows what pays the bills.

Mannix...I think I said it all in my article -- and I commend SI for running my slam of one of their big-name guys. (Although I was pissed that the magazine ran a letter that praised the article then said, "But I still hate soccer.") Basically, pieces like Mannix's are obtuse journalism that comes out of the uncreative minds of the aforementioned old-school editors.

Media outlets will need to change their attitude about soccer or be left behind. Globalization means that the worldwide juggernaut that is soccer is slowing taking over the States, and that includes the media.

I would be remiss if I didn't ask you about your Wikipedia entry. "His Major League Soccer career consisted of only five games played, 100 minutes, one weak shot on goal, and one foul committed." Did you do that or did a friend?

I didn't do it. And my friends are technological morons. They couldn't create a wiki page even if they were promised a one-night stand with Jessica Alba for doing it. And, is it true? Yes, however, that "weak" shot missed the upper 90 by a few inches. At least, that's how I remember it.

Who is your favorite player to cover?

Jimmy Conrad. He's clever, well-spoken, honest, and, as he'll gladly tell you, good looking.

Your least favorite?

Beckham. He's a poster boy for staying on message by spouting out cliches and platitudes.

Is the Designated Player a good development for MLS? Why or why not?

Hell yeah! Why? Because we get to see the likes of Juan Pablo Angel instead of Sergio Galvan Rey.

Some quick hitters and we're done. 4-4-2 or 4-5-1 or 4-2-3-1? 3-4-1-2

Best league in the world? La Liga

Favorite all-time player? Michel Platini

Favorite current player? Matt Reis

Landon Donovan—fraud or real-deal? See above.

Do you still own any of your brother's CDs from his band? I played bass in his band, so, yes, I have a few.

What club(s) do you support? Panathinaikos. Pame oi Prasinoi!!! Also Roma, because I dated a girl from Rome for a little while -- although she was for Lazio.


Mike Georger said...

bigger fraud, donovan or autism?

i think hes right about the EPL being mediocre after the top, but i think that is a product of the way money has taken over the game. and to his list of 'are these world class players?' i think the answer is 'no' except for sideshow valderrama

but i dont think the point of saying the mls or usa lacks world class players is meant to knock them, rather just to show that there is a gap and it needs tightening, which hopefully will be done.

The NY Kid said...

Great interview - I'm thrilled that we were able to make this work.

Lalas made some excellent points in the article - I mean, is Pato worth twice as much as Jozy? I certainly don't think so.

But Greg? You dated a fascist?

Mike Georger said...

is he worth more? hard to say. if a club has the financial wherewithal to pay either price theyre going with pato every time though i dont think theres much question of that

Ian said...

Call me when Jozy is scoring for Milan in the Serie A (which would be awesome!). Pato was basically Milan's only productive forward last year before he got hurt.

Autoglass said...

Great job! I disagree with most of what Lalas says - I don't think that Donovan has proven much at all (and I'm a USA and Galaxy supporter!) and I don't think MLS play is really close at all to mid-table Prem play. But, I always appreciate Greg's writing and analysis and his points are cogent, consistent and well made.

Bigus Dickus said...

Wow. Autoglass and I are right there together.

Donovan is the most overrated player on the planet earth.

NO MLS team could play in the Premier League it is not close. Miles away in fact. The players in the MLS are just not good enough.

Many are players that used to play in the Premiership but are no longer at that standard.

I absolutely love Darren Huckerby and he looks very very comfortable here. He could no longer play in the Premiership for sure. I have also been watching San Jose closely. The defence is a horror show and Sealy couldn't hit a barn door with a banjo.

F.A. Great job mate, Good interview!!

Precious Roy said...

Was sort of wondering what happened with Ngwenya. Thought he was the underrated hero of that second Dynamo championship team. Knew he went to Austria. Didn't know he crashed out already.

Did Lalas consider it wasn't only the players around him, but might also be a function of the coaches, how they used him, and the tactics?

Anyway, good to see he's getting a shot in Germany.

SkinScience said...

this guy is as much part of the problem as he is the solution, firstly if a mls team as constructed played a premier league season they'd make derby look good, the pace, overall quality and goalscoring ability would destroy them, you can not make mistakes they get punished at that level and the mls is nowhere near that level.

also if you want to see a referendum on US players at a high level fulham surely is it, an in the main they struggled mightily last season.

la liga better than the over rated epl, the constant 3 semi finalists and 1 or 2 finalists in the champions league would beg to differ. Shame to let facts get in the way...

For the record I love the passion that the US 'soccer' acolytes bring to the game, it is similar to that which US sports fans have to do in the UK it's just unfortunate that the game isn't as easily understandable as US fans like...

Bigus Dickus said...

I think you just have to look at the players and it's obvious..Could that guy or that guy play in the Prem? The answer is no most of the time, if not all of the time. And the best players in this league, the Angel's and the Huckerby's etc are here because they are no longer good enough for England, Beckham could play for a mid to bottom Prem side and he is the absolute exception. But if he thought for a second when he joined L.A that he had a chance at playing for England again he would never have signed. not just the Prem but the

Last week Denton from San Jose made one of the most laughable errors I have seen in years. That wouldn't happen in League 2. Fundamentals!

I admire Lalas' loyalty and defence of his league but that loyalty usually leads to blinkered opinions. As a Norwich fan I am often guilty of the same!

Bigus Dickus said...

*Sorry for the stray sentence..whoops, its early!

Ben said...

All that was missing was a mention of Striker. Greg is the man.