Start of MLS Season Can't Come Soon Enough for Lalas

TIMES STAFF WRITER

On the Galaxy's Web site, lagalaxy.com, a clock has been ticking off the days, hours, minutes and seconds to the start of Major League Soccer's sixth season.

For one player, at least, it's been ticking too slowly.

"I'm excited," Alexi Lalas said the other day at the Rose Bowl. "I'm excited about this team, I'm excited about the league.

"You know, this has been an incredible preseason for me. It's going on five months right now. It's the longest preparation I've ever had for a season.

"I'm sure I speak for everybody else when I say, 'Let's get this thing going.' Because there comes a time when [training] is just monotony; not necessarily physically, but certainly mentally.

"We need to start playing for something, and we're finally getting to that point."

Tonight at 7, the Galaxy and the San Jose Earthquakes open their 2001 seasons at the Rose Bowl.

The game will feature the MLS debuts of one coach, the Earthquakes' Frank Yallop, and several players, Galaxy forward Brian Ching and San Jose striker Dwayne DeRosario and possibly the Earthquakes' Landon Donovan, despite his broken rib.

But Lalas, as much as anyone, will be the focus of attention. Tonight marks his return to league play after a "retirement" that lasted 18 months.

On Oct. 9, 1999, the former U.S. national team defender hung up his boots on an emotional evening at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Mo. Coincidentally, the Wizards' opponent that night was the Galaxy.

Even then, though, Lalas hinted that fans might not have seen the last of him.

"As I've said before, this is the right decision for this moment in my life," he said. "A while from now, I might go, 'What the hell was I thinking? That was really stupid.'

"But I'll deal with that when the time comes."

The time arrived last fall, when, after enjoying his stint with Rob Stone as co-host of ESPN2's "MLS ExtraTime," the league's weekly highlights show; as a TV analyst on Earthquakes' games, and as an NBC color commentator with Andres Cantor at the Sydney Olympics, Lalas realized how much he missed playing.

He began training with the Galaxy in late October, then in January made it official, signing a one-year contract with the league.

Since then, he has been working daily to regain his conditioning, his timing and, most important, his soccer sense, the ability to read the game and react accordingly.

"I know I still have a ways to go, but I've seen the progress, which is good," he said.

"In a sense, I was lucky to have that [lengthy] kind of preseason and not the normal shorter one, because I needed the time. The best part is that I can see the progress I'm making and hopefully, as the season progresses, I'll get better and better.

"But right now I'm just excited to start playing."

Coach Sigi Schmid said he has been impressed by Lalas.

"Certainly, he's much better now than he was three months ago," Schmid said. "I think what he did in the [CONCACAF] Champions Cup [in January] was actually pretty amazing because it was asking a lot of him to be out for a year or more from competitive soccer and then to play in three big games like that.

"I still think his best soccer is maybe a month or two months away, but he's definitely more comfortable on the ball, his timing of things is getting much better, his timing in the air is improving. So there's a lot of things he brings to the picture."

The picture looks a little different, though. The goatee and long hair are gone. The irrepressible Lalas style remains intact.

While appearing on Channel 5's morning news show last week, Lalas managed to set co-anchor Barbara Beck's heart aflutter, push his band Nectar Drop's latest CD, "So It Goes . . .," and talk up the new MLS season.

Obviously, it will be more than only on the field that he will help the Galaxy this year.

After seasons in New England, New York/New Jersey and Kansas City, Lalas has found his place in the sun. La-La Land has become Lalas Land.

Almost literally.

Lalas will donate 25 tickets to a group of underprivileged children or local soccer organizations for each of the Galaxy's 14 home games this season. The recipients will sit in what has been dubbed "Lalas Land," in Section 7 of the Rose Bowl.

"I've always wanted a city named after me," Lalas said, "and this is the closest I'll ever get."

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