An exclusive interview with Alexi Lalas

Daily Soccer Digest writer Doug Sibor and retired U.S. Men's National team defender and Fox Sports analyst Alexi Lalas discuss the future of U.S. soccer, the hiring of Bruce Arena, Jurgen Klinsmann's legacy, young American players to keep an eye on, World Cup 2018 qualifying and much more in this exclusive DSD interview...

What went right in 2016?

"With the Copa America Centenario, this massive tournament, getting out of a difficult group and going through to the semifinals was good. It was something that while we had done it in the past, it was obviously a different time since 1995. To have a U.S. team do something like that hosting it in our own country was all positive, and the way in which they did it was good (although going out against Argentina in a real shellacking left a little bit of a bitter taste). In terms of a tournament measurement, that was a good thing.

You also had the arrival of players like Christian Pulisic and the continued evolution of Gyasi Zardes and Bobby Wood, so there were some real individual positives to look at and players that give people hope because of how good they are. And just the continued general interest in soccer and in particular in this U.S. team, those are all good things."

 

What were the one or two things that went the most wrong?

"There are two things.

One is a specific, practical, and very easily defined failure and problem. That is starting out 0-2 in a World Cup qualifying process, the Hex. That is easy to identify and to see, so that’s one thing, and that’s why there was a change made [with the head coach]. Anybody, regardless of whether you follow soccer or not, when you explain the situation and people can see it, it’s very obvious.

Something that’s more subjective and nuanced is where this team is heading. When you look at the way that they are playing, the failure to live up to the promise that was made for this team, those are much more big picture, grander type of things that one can point to but are not as easy to define or to see. So you have both the micro and macro thing going on when it comes to Jurgen Klinsmann and this team."

 

When building that future you refer to, is the technical director position a more important hire than the head coach of the national team?

"It’s important to understand that this whole advent of the “technical director” was based on something that’s been done for years overseas, and we adopted it because we felt that this was the appropriate way to progress in importance. However, unless you are able to clearly articulate and define the roles and responsibilities of this position, then it’s just a title we throw out.

The way I look at it, if you’re going to have a technical director, then you need to spend time and make sure that that technical director is doing what you expect of him or her. I fundamentally disagree with having the technical director be the same person as the head coach. The whole point of having a technical director is to be thinking big picture and long term, and to both publicly and privately be able to articulate exactly what he/she believes this team should be doing on or off the field to be successful. It is two different jobs and it requires two different people.

I don’t begrudge Jurgen Klinsmann or any other coach for wanting to coalesce power and have as many different titles and responsibilities as possible so that they don’t have to share and have other bosses. I get that. But it was problematic to have Jurgen Klinsmann be doing both. I don’t think we ever heard the Technical Director of U.S. Soccer actually talk and actually articulate what he wanted. That’s because it was the same person.

Internally it would be very difficult to assess and critique how well the job [of the technical director] is done, and it’s next to impossible to do it from the outside since we don’t have any criteria or public acknowledgment of what the specific expectations are from that specific position. So you put all of that together, and whether you are into soccer or not you can see from an organizational standpoint, there was some dysfunction of their own making. And then the practical performance of the duties that were articulated and understood didn’t live up to what they needed to be."

 

Were the criticisms of Klinsmann as a tactician deserved, or did the players deserve a share of the blame as well?

"The players are the ones who have to go out there and implement whatever the game plan is, and they deserve criticism. Both publically and privately, they need to shoulder the responsibility for the failures or problems that the team has had over the last few years. Having said that, I don’t think Jurgen Klinsmann did them any favors. Whether playing players out of position— or at least what on the outside appeared to be a confusion or dysfunction as to how they wanted to play— Jurgen talked a tremendous amount about having players “get out of their comfort zone.” He used that term a lot.

I can respect and understand times where that can be incredibly beneficial to expose players to different things and test them at things they either haven’t been good at or don’t know they could possibly be good at. You can benefit from putting players in those positions. But it has to be at the right moment, and I think where the failure came was an inability to consistently put both the players and the team itself in positions to succeed and to have them in positions where they actually were in their comfort zone. There is an incredible benefit and value to actually having players in comfortable positions that they understand and they know.

So all of that combined with this bigger picture stuff we talk about where Jurgen came in promising to fundamentally change the way this team plays, and too often there was very little of that. I would argue that at times when the team actually did play well, it was simply being a better version of itself and reverted to form, and took on many of the traits and attributes that have long been staples of this team. But that’s not what was promised. When you come in talking about changing the way a team plays and taking it to teams and to use his word, taking a much more “proactive” type of approach, it’s absolutely fair to hold you to accounts for that. Too often, there was not any type of revolution; it was simply a natural evolution when it came to the team.

At times, as to the way Jurgen Klinsmann positioned himself, I think he played the media poorly and the message that got out there was too often one of condescension and at times an unnecessary arrogance. That certainly didn’t help.

It’s not by design and might sound like a backhanded compliment, when people say that the last five years were wasted I don’t necessarily think that’s true. But I think the question is how much further along would we be with someone else.

That’s easy Monday morning quarterbacking, but I do think that more so than any other coach in the past Jurgen Klinsmann asked questions that needed to be asked, and whether by design or not forced us to really look at ourselves and see who we are. In a certain way, maybe he dramatically highlighted what we are or what we should continue to be, and maybe what we aren’t or at least we aren’t yet. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; sometimes it’s important to have reflection. How that reflection comes can be in different forms, so maybe in a certain sense, we learned and maybe it was a necessary lesson (albeit at times painful) that needed to happen in order for us to go forward."

 

What’s old is new, and Bruce Arena is back. Is it intentional bringing in someone who is essentially an ideological opposite to Klinsmann, and do you think that will benefit the team in both the short term and the long term?

"When you’re thinking about this, first and foremost you have to decide: after losing these first two games, was qualifying for the World Cup in 2018 in jeopardy? If you come to the conclusion that it was, then OK. I was not of the opinion that qualifying was in jeopardy even if they continued on with Jurgen Klinsmann, but I also said that they should have made a change back in 2014 [after the World Cup] and never should have given him another cycle. They should have just said, “Thank you for your time, you’re leaving [the program] in better condition than when you took it over, and that’s good.” Do no evil and move on.

But I do believe that Sunil Gulati and the federation came to the conclusion that qualifying for the 2018 World Cup was in jeopardy after those first two games, so if that is your conclusion then you are in crisis and emergency mode and you are trying to fix it as quickly as possible. If that is the case, there is nobody better than Bruce Arena.

But make no mistake, he is not a progressive, he is not a revolutionary. This is not about having a sexy or romantic type of play. This is about pragmatism. This is about somebody who can come in, very quickly suss the situation out, and do what he needs to do in order to qualify this team for the World Cup. In that sense, that’s exactly who you need.

I do think that he will come in and very quickly establish an identity and be able to articulate to the players what he expects them to do individually and collectively. If the players can do that, great, and if they can’t, he’ll say goodbye to those players and bring in people who can. He doesn’t suffer fools, and I think there is a burning desire for him to get another crack at that World Cup ring. We know what happened in 2002, and he’s certainly grown since then, but this is not a hire for the future. It will be done after 2018, and then Sunil Gulati and whoever this new Technical Director is will decide who that person is to come and do some of the things, ironically, that Jurgen Klinsmann maybe wanted to do and either couldn’t just because of the situation he had and the reality of where we were, or he just didn’t have the tools to do it. That’s where you make a much more progressive and revolutionary type of hire."

 

Do you think that this job is something that requires either an American coach or a coach who has significant experience coaching American players in MLS? Is the mentality among American players different, and is that why a Euro-centric coach like Klinsmann was unable to succeed?

"I don’t think it’s a requirement, but I do think you hedge your bets. You have somebody who has a healthy respect and understanding of what the American-developed player is and how valuable that player can be to you in doing your job. That distinction is important because we get into this whole argument about foreign nationals and all that kind of stuff; I really couldn’t care less where you were born or what language you speak, as long as you are good and have an undying belief and passion and love for representing this incredible country of ours when you put that shirt on, put your hand over your heart, and sing that national anthem.

But when you talk about the American player, look: in 1994, guys like myself and Cobi Jones had never even played professional soccer when we came on the scene. In 1998, the players to emerge from the World Cup were guys like Frankie Hejduk and Brian McBride, who were MLS players in a World Cup that was horrible [for the U.S.]. In 2002, the biggest emerging players out of that were Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley, two players from MLS. So, MLS and American professional soccer have been producing quality for a number of years and you’re throwing the baby out with the bathwater if you just ignore it or approach in the way that Jurgen Klinsmann did.

It’s beneficial to have a working—and if at all possible, positive—relationship with the professional leagues in the United States, and you’re doing a disservice to yourself and your country if you shun them or push them aside. So it is incumbent on whoever is the coach, regardless of where they come from, to (if they don’t already have one) immerse themselves and have an understanding [of American soccer] and surround themselves with other people who can help them do the job. In the same way, if I were going to another county I would want to understand the lay of the land and how things work to give me the best possible chance of success."

 

We saw in glimpses towards the end of the year the emergence of someone like Sacha Kljestan, who had been buried by Jurgen Klinsmann. There are other MLS players like Benny Feilhaber and Dax McCarty who have never even gotten the chance. Are those the type of players that you see being able to emerge as major contributors under Bruce Arena?

"Maybe, only in that I think Bruce will have a much more open mind about what can be successful at the international level. What you have to ask yourself is: were those types of players dismissed because they weren’t good and didn’t fit into what Jurgen Klinsmann wanted to do, or was it simply because they were playing in MLS? Because no matter what, this is a “personal opinion” type of job, and you’re going to have players who don’t fit in.

Where the consternation came was because Jurgen Klinsmann was so public about his negative feelings towards MLS, then automatically we assumed that these types of players were not involved because they were in MLS. Now, that may or may not be the truth, but even to have that thought is a problem. You want somebody in charge who doesn’t care where you’re playing as long as you’re good. You’re going to have to make decisions, and people are going to agree or disagree.

But I would caution people that just because someone like Dax McCarty has been good playing with his club team—and I would say this whether he was playing with the Red Bulls, or over in England, or any place else—doesn’t necessarily mean that it translates to the national team. Sometimes, “form is fallacy” I say. Taking players out of comfortable situations and putting them into a very different situation sometimes completely changes the way they play and the way they function. It’s easy to say “a good player is just a good player,” but it’s not quite as simple as that.

When it comes to the national game, it’s the coach’s responsibility and job to put together who he/she thinks is going to function together the best. I like to think that it has nothing to do necessarily with where they play, and I think that it’s going to be interesting to see what Bruce Arena does decide and who he thinks can be successful at the international level in terms of where these players come from."

 

You also have guys such as Bobby Wood and John Brooks, who elevated their performances last year and are now established as national team regulars. Do you think their ascension was legitimate, or were their great years aberrant and someone like Brooks may find himself on the outside looking in under this new coach?

"Like I said, Bruce Arena is going to come in and very quickly be able to assess what he likes and what he doesn’t. That’s his prerogative and that’s what he should be doing. I think you’re going to have two different kinds of groups (I’m talking about the players who have been a part of the team for the last couple years): you’re going to have the one group that looks at it and thinks “Oh my goodness, my champion Jurgen Klinsmann is gone, am I in trouble?”, then you’re going to have another group that says, “Oh my goodness, there’s a new possibility here with Bruce Arena.”

But regardless, with both of them you’re going to have lit a fire under their asses to come in and impress very quickly. Bruce is going to be open-minded, but both of those groups need to come in and show that they deserve to be there going forward. Some of the players that maybe benefitted from the personal opinion of Jurgen Klinsmann will realize that maybe it’s going to be a different personal opinion from Bruce Arena. But regardless, that whistle’s going to blow, and we are going to judge these players and this coach on how that team performs. This is the beauty of the Bruce situation: if the team performs well, Bruce Arena gets to come in and be the savior. He saved the day, he qualified the team, and he’s God. He continues to solidify his legacy. If they don’t [perform well], it was because they were already on the skids, it was problematic, it wasn’t really “his” team, and there was only so much he could do. So it’s a win-win either way for Bruce Arena."

 

One interesting thing to watch will be if/how youth players like Cameron Carter-Vickers break into the team in 2017. Do you see any young players in particular making an impact during qualifying in the way Christian Pulisic did this past year?

"Sure. Jurgen Klinsmann was good in that sense of giving young players opportunities and I think Bruce Arena has a long track record of doing that. As grizzled and old school as we look at him, this is a guy who played Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley [at the 2002 World Cup when both were unproven 20-year-olds]. So he has the confidence in his assessment of players to play whoever it is regardless of youth. But he also is very good at managing those young players.

As far as who’s coming down the line, this gets back to youth development and national team youth development, which is different than club development just because of the limited opportunities that you have. So I don’t look at it as Bruce Arena’s responsibility to develop talent, I look at it as playing talent. Maybe it’s the same and we’re splitting hairs there, but I think that the development comes at a younger age and comes through those youth teams. That comes back to the Technical Director and I don’t think Bruce will be at all concerned with what the youth teams are doing right now, and nor should he be. He needs to concentrate on that national team and get them functioning at the highest level. If there are some players from those youth teams that can help him do that then fair enough, but he doesn’t need to be concerning himself with taking time to deal with that other stuff."

 

One area where he may need to look at the youth teams sooner rather than later is in goal, considering the ages of Brad Guzan and Tim Howard. Although no young players have really emerged of late, someone could get that opportunity in the coming year. Fast-forward to the 2018 World Cup; who is in goal? And who might be the “goalkeeper of the future?”

"I don’t see us having somebody that we don’t know in 2018, and this gets back to that whole emergency type of situation the team finds itself in. I think Bruce Arena, especially in goal, will rely on the “old faithfuls.” At this point, Tim’s hurt so we’ll how he comes back at the beginning of 2017 and where he is physically, but we all know that goalkeepers can continue to go on and play very well into their 30s and sometimes even into their 40s. So I don’t see Bruce experimenting.

We’ve always had a tradition of great goalkeeping, and the good part is we have a lot of good goalkeepers but the bad part is they don’t get a lot of playing time and so we can never really fully assess them unless we literally say [to the older goalkeepers], “That’s it, it’s the end. Thank you very much, you’re done and we’re starting again,” and I don’t see that happening until after 2018. I would say right now the safe money is on either Tim Howard or Brad Guzan starting in the 2018 World Cup."

 

Any chance for 45-year-old Brad Friedel?

"If you ask Brad, he’s incredibly fit and it would not surprise me if he came out and could stop those shots. He’s that good. That might drive Tim Howard and Brad Guzan over the edge though. Even Brad and Kasey [Keller] had to wait and wait until they had their time, so you have to be very patient to be an American goalkeeper."

 

Is the U.S. going to qualify for the 2018 World Cup? And why?

"Yes. It’s just an actual numbers game. The U.S. finished first with 22 points last Hex, and there are still 24 points left to get [in this Hex]. They have arguably played two of their three hardest games already in their first two, and I think Bruce Arena is going to get them to either become the best version of themselves, or at least a better version of themselves. That’s important. I had no qualms about saying they were going to qualify even after the first two losses with Jurgen Klinsmann, so this is only in my estimation made it that much more clear that they’re going to qualify. The top three, as we know, get to go automatically and the fourth gets to go to a playoff.

If we don’t qualify out of CONCACAF, then we have major, major problems, and it would be catastrophic. Soccer wouldn’t go away, but we can’t afford to let these opportunities that come every four years go by the wayside. There will come a time where we don’t qualify, it’s inevitable. The soccer gods will look down upon us and say, “this is your time.” It will hurt and I just hope it doesn’t happen any time soon or in my lifetime, and I don’t see it happening in 2018."

Author: Doug Sibor

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