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Jerry's World

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Lalas is owed a great debt for carrying the burden of building his sport.

By Jerry Langdon
Gannett News Service

(Monday, October 25, 1999) -- A big debt is owed Alexi Lalas for the contributions he made to American soccer. For a period -- 1994 to 1997 -- he was the focal point of the sport in America.

He came under criticism later for his lack of skills and speed, which diminished his role on the national team. Few realized his play was greatly improved this year for the Major League Soccer's Kansas City Wizards.

Outside of the dominant trio of Jeff Agoos (D.C. United), Robin Fraser (Los Angeles) and Lubos Kubik (Chicago), no one played better on defense in Major League Soccer than the 29-year-old red-haired, goateed guitar player and band leader. He could have been an MLS mainstay for several more years, and a comeback is not out of the question.

We never fully understood the intensity of the criticism directed against Lalas in the past couple years. He was College Player of the Year in 1991, was named to the All-Star team in the 1994 World Cup, was the only American to play in famed Serie A in Italy (two years, a starter in one).

We remember his odyssey in 1995, when he participated in a successful playoff match for Padova in Italy, then took an all-night flight to the United States, appearing the next afternoon (June 11) in the second half of a U.S. Cup match against Nigeria.

Yes, he was the player extensively promoted by U.S. Soccer, and later Major League Soccer, rather than others who were better players. Yes, he was paid more -- some estimate his annual earning power in excess of $500,000 (about a third of what a major league baseball player gets for hitting .250 or having a 5.50 earned run average) during peak seasons -- but he earned it with his off-field work.

He had his weaknesses in the run of play, but he also was a terrific man marker (ask Carlos Hermosillo of Mexico) and a scoring threat on set plays, particularly corner kicks.

Alexi Lalas, if he stays retired, will be missed; he played an enormous role in the development of soccer in the United States.

The Gold Cup pairings are about as expected -- Mexico virtually assured of making the finals of the 12-team tournament February 12-27.

It is in Group C with Guatemala and Trinidad & Tobago, and then crosses over to Group D to play South Korea, Costa Rica or Canada.

The other side of the bracket includes the United States and South American representatives Colombia and Peru. The Americans are in Group B with Peru and Haiti, with Jamaica, Colombia, and Honduras in Group A.

Mexico in recent years has an easy path to the finals and a Los Angeles Coliseum sellout crowd for the title match. Look for the same again this time -- with either Colombia, the United States or Peru the opponent.

The United States Soccer Federation is to be applauded for acquiring rights to the FIFA under-17 world championship scheduled November 10-27 in New Zealand.

Every match involving the talented American team will be featured on tape delay on Fox Sports World and live on the DISH Network via pay-per-view. Additional pay-per-view and cable outlets will be announced in coming weeks, and that will be important.

"This is a landmark agreement for U.S. Soccer,'' said Mark Noonan, the Federation's chief marketing officer. "We know hope important it is to give our fans an opportunity to follow our teams when they are competing at the highest level. . . Educated followers of the sport know that our U-17 team is something special."

The U.S. team, acknowledged as the best collection of teen-aged talent in American history, is undefeated in its last 20 matches (16-0-4) and is one of the favorites in the 16-team competition.

Jerry Langdon is sports editor of Gannett News Service and can be e-mailed at

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