WORLD CUP '94 / 25 DAYS AND COUNTING : A SOCCER ROCKER : Lalas Plays to Own Beat : U.S. Defender Is a Hit With Fans but Hits Sour Note With Game's Purists

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Pete Townshend had his generation, Alexi Lalas has his, which partially explains:

--The wild red mane and straggly goatee that give Lalas the appearance of a grunge beast who took a wrong turn at Aberdeen and wound up on a soccer field;

--The self-produced, self-distributed Alexi Lalas rock CD, featuring the sing-along favorite "Kickin' Balls;"

--The self-styled Alexi Lalas logo, which is tattooed on his right ankle and is a registered trademark in the United States;

--The Upper Deck World Cup edition trading card, picturing Lalas in very cool black shades, acoustic guitar strapped to his shoulder;

--And the consuming lifelong dream that continues to drive Lalas as he approaches his 24th year.

"I can die a happy man," Lalas says, "if someone offers me an endorsement for 7-Eleven Slurpees."

A look of absolute bliss spreads across Lalas' face. Ah, the whirled cup. Lalas gazes skyward as he contemplates the frothy crushed ice and treacly cherry syrup, beckoning him as they do every day between practice sessions with the U.S. national team.

"I live and breathe 'em," Lalas says. "I grew up on them. To be able to endorse them--that would be beautiful, man, because I love 'em and I want to spread the gospel of Slurpees."

If this sounds in any way similar to Winona Ryder's ode to the Big Gulp in the movie "Reality Bites," congratulations, you have wandered into the right demographic. Born in 1970 and arriving at the world's stage in 1994, Alexi Lalas is an American sports hero for his times, where doing it yourself is the only reliable means to success, and peace, love and understanding can be found at the bottom of a wax-coated paper cup.

He is also ahead of his time--an American-born-and-raised soccer player with his own cult following, complete with post-match choruses of squealing teen-age girls and appearances on CNN, ESPN and the cover of Sports Illustrated For Kids.

"Bar none, he is the most interviewed man in America, I don't care what anybody says," jibes U.S. goalkeeper Tony Meola, who goes back to the days when the prescribed behavior for the typical American soccer player was to be unseen and not heard.

Back to the days of January, 1994.

Lalas is rewriting the rules, one autograph at a time. He is reeling off a few dozen more after a luncheon at the Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles when a man sidles up next to him and says, "I thought you were going to sing a song for us."

Franz Beckenbauer used to get the same thing all the time.

"Hey, they didn't invite me to, man," says Lalas, who left his six guitars at home. "They're scared. They're scared I'm going to embarrass them or something. Oh well."

"I like your record," the man says.

Lalas stops signing.

"Did you?" he asks eagerly.

"Yeah."

"All right!" Lalas replies, nodding intensely. "There's the man, there's the man. That's one more.

"What comes after tin?" Lalas muses. "Nickel? The album has just gone nickel."

Later the same day, Lalas is cruising the Santa Ana Freeway, heading to his San Juan Capistrano apartment, when a car pulls up alongside him. The man behind the wheel is holding up a soccer magazine and waving it to get Lalas' attention--a drive-by salute from the fast lane.

"He didn't want to talk or anything, he just wanted to say hello," Lalas says. "He was obviously a soccer fan. He recognized me and he just wanted to be acknowledged.

"That was very cool."

When he arrives at his apartment, Lalas finds a long, thin UPS package waiting for him.

"All right," Lalas yelps as he drags the box onto the living room floor and begins tearing at one end.

Soon, he is pulling out a stack of wall posters. They are huge full-color likenesses of Lalas, each bearing an inscription in 1960s-era psychedelic typeface: "The Alexi Lalas Experience."

Just a gift from the guitar company that recently signed Lalas to an endorsement contract.

"This," Lalas says, "is very cool."

The Alexi Lalas Experience? At the moment, Lalas isn't looking to trade.

*

Christmas, 1992, was not very cool. Lalas spent it alone, holed up in a drab London hotel room, holding out hope that his month-long tryout with the renowned English club, Arsenal, might produce something tangible, like a paycheck.

"I'd just finished with the Olympics," Lalas says, "and I had nothing else going. Nobody wanted me or anything like that. I was just hanging out back home in Detroit for a little bit when, luckily, somebody offered me an opportunity to go over and try out for Arsenal in London, which is arguably one of the greatest teams in the world.

"I had nothing, no guarantee. Somebody offered this tryout--that was it. So I packed my bag and spent all of December trying out for this team.

"Here I am, a guy with no experience, no name, trying out for one of the world's best teams. And in England, defenders are a dime a dozen.

"They didn't want me at the end of it. That's OK. Whatever. But, man, I spent a month in a hotel, just sort of sitting there, going, 'Oh my God. My life's over. I don't know what's going to happen. I don't have a job. No one's going to take me.' "

Salvation came in the form of Bora Milutinovic, the man entrusted with one of the most formidable sporting tasks of our time--assembling a U.S. soccer team capable of playing host to a World Cup tournament without spilling drinks on the carpet. In early 1993, Milutinovic put out the call, inviting more than 60 players down to Mission Viejo for auditions.

For Lalas, it was the beginning of a beautiful relationship. Lalas is not especially fast or graceful--he's a headbanger, and the 18-yard box is his personal mosh pit--but Milutinovic has kept him around for 16 months, through wave after wave of cuts, confounding the purists and the elitists who cringe and sadly shake their heads as they watch Lalas lope downfield.

Asked what he likes about Lalas' soccer, Milutinovic jokes, "I don't like nothing."

He smiles.

"He has personality ," Milutinovic says. "He is a young man full of the life. He likes music, he likes soccer, he is very intelligent. He learns very fast.

"What is personality? If you love what you do in life, if you are not afraid of nothing, this is good personality. Alexi has this personality."

Lalas, U.S. Olympian and 1991 college player of the year at Rutgers, is both bemused and bewildered at the abuse he receives in the world soccer press. The prevailing view is that Lalas is too slow and too often out of position--criticism he was hearing again Saturday night after the United States' 3-2 loss to German champion Bayern Munich.

"I answer a lot of questions about my lack of skills," Lalas says with a sigh. "Bora 'inexplicably backs' me. I've heard that a couple times. I don't know what to make of that.

"When you say that, it means it's inexplicable in a sense that there should be some explanation as to why someone with less skills or experience should be playing.

"Hey, I've worked my . . . off and I've had some success, man. Don't take that away from me."

Another sling shot in Lalas' direction: His rough-and-tumble game is too physical for World Cup play; he's a red card waiting to happen.

Lalas slams the soft drink he is holding down on the table top.

"That is such of load of. . . ," he bellows. "You've got to be physical. I think for what my role is on the team, I do pretty well."

Lalas' role, as he sees it, is not unlike Marty McSorley's in hockey.

He is to serve as enforcer for the U.S. team.

"Damn right," Lalas says. "I know my role. My role is to win all the head balls. It's to tackle. It's to defuse dangerous offensive situations. It's to read the game. It's to lead. And it's to intimidate. I'm out there to protect my players.

"I think I do these to the best of my abilities. If in some people's opinion, it's not enough, screw 'em.

"At least they're thinking about it, that's all I can say."

He laughs.

"Even if it is a blatantly uninformed and unbelievably naive opinion."

*

Alexi Lalas doesn't want you to know this, but he attended Cranbrook Kingswood High in Birmingham, Mich., a private school in an upscale suburb of Detroit.

"Don't say that too loud," Lalas deadpans. "Nobody knows that around here. They all think I grew up in a trash can or something like that.

"If they saw where I went to school, it would ruin my reputation."

At Cranbrook, Lalas learned his chops, both as a soccer player and a musician. He also played hockey well enough to captain Cranbrook to the state championship in 1987. He played both sports in college, leading Rutgers in scoring in 1989.

At Rutgers, Lalas formed a band, the Gypsies, and devoted much of his college years to "gigging all over the place and having a great time." He majored in English, but ask Lalas today to name a favorite author and he'll concede, "I don't really have a whole lot. Since I've been out, I've been concentrating on going back and reading all the books I blew off in school."

The band was the thing. Eventually, the Gypsies grew big enough to pack small clubs and pubs across New Jersey, but Lalas wanted to put a record out and, much to his dismay, there was no Bora Milutinovic at Sire or Elektra.

So Lalas decided to put one out himself.

"I've made some money with this team," Lalas says. "What else am I gonna spend it on? I spend it on musical instruments and Slurpees and feeding myself. I don't have a lot of extravagant stuff to spend it on. . . .

"I decided I was going to produce it, mix it myself and put it out totally independently. Finance it, do everything. I got my 1-800 number and a P.O. box.

"I said, 'Hey, whatever happens, happens.' "

The result is "Woodland," a 12-song CD that features the Gypsies on half the tracks and Lalas, alone with his acoustic guitar, on the others.

Lalas describes the record as "classic rock, having-a-good-time music, the kind of music I grew up with." Bob Seger, J. Geils, John Cougar Mellencamp, the '70s band Sweet.

"It's definitely not a grunge sort of scene or anything like that," he says.

Most of the lyrics convey a heavy world-weariness, a longing to go back home, because, as Lalas puts it, "I haven't been able to do it. I do have a longing to ease up and relax and go home. My life has been on the road, constantly."

Lalas originally spent about $1,600 to press 1,000 CDs and says a second pressing is planned for June.

"It's definitely not a major record release," he says, "but, you know, I'm selling those. They're selling. I gotta do another pressing, so that's something."

Reviews have generally been kind, even from Milutinovic, who was raised on Yugoslavfolk music.

"Is nice," Milutinovic says. "Is young. Is different. I appreciate his talent. But myself, I am more Frank Sinatra."

And Lalas?

What is he?

Rocker first and soccer player second? Or the other way around?

"You mean today? The middle of May?" Lalas says. "Today, it's soccer. It will be that way through July 17, and then who knows what happens after that?

"If someone said, 'Hey, let's jump in the bus and go around and tour and play music,' I would definitely consider that. I don't have a big concept of the future or what it holds."

For the moment, Lalas' future is June 18, USA vs. Switzerland at the Pontiac Silverdome. The U.S. team's World Cup opener.

Lalas can't wait.

"There are going to be 80,000 people, rooting for the USA," he says. "That's going to be an unbelievable sort of adrenaline rush."

Lalas strokes his flaming red goatee.

"USA adrenaline is something that is very cool."

World Cup Player at a Glance

Name: Alexi Lalas.

Born: June 1, 1970, Birmingham, Mich.

College: Rutgers.

Height: 6-3.

Weight: 195 pounds.

Position: Defender.

National team debut: 1990, vs. Canada.

Caps (international matches): 44.

Goals scored: 5.

Little-known fact: The Lalas "family crest" that appears on the "Woodland" album cover--and Lalas' right ankle--isn't really a family crest. "I tell people that, but we don't have a family crest," Lalas says. "When I found that out, as a kid, I was so disappointed I decided to make up my own. I used to draw it on clothes, books, everything." In college, Lalas had the insignia--a capital A adorned with a diamond and an heart--tattooed on his ankle and, with the release of his record, a fifth-grade doodle now carries a U.S. trademark.

Honors: Finished second to Thomas Dooley in voting for 1993 Futbol de Primera Player of the Year. Won Hermann Trophy and Missouri Athletic Club Award, given annually to the best collegiate soccer player in the United States, in 1991. Member of the 1992 U.S. Olympic team. Member of the gold medal-winning U.S. team at 1991 Pan American Games.

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