By Kevin Mooney
While soccer was not an entirely foreign concept in America prior to 1994, it was the year that many fans can point to as a new dawn for the game in the United States. 1994 was only the second World Cup the American team had competed in since 1950, and it was being played on their home turf. Very little was expected from this ragtag group of players, in fact, most observers just hoped they wouldn’t embarrass themselves.
Turns out, they did pretty well.
And so did a young, red-headed, shaggy-bearded defender named Alexi Lalas. This former college player who had never even played in a professional match ended up becoming one of the most-recognizable players in U.S. soccer history. His stellar play in the center of the U.S. defense helped the U.S. team advance out of the group stage and earned him respect on the field, including an honorable mention on the World Cup All-Star team. It also gave the man who eventually helped bring David Beckham to America his first shot at fame and fortune.
“I lived the power of what a World Cup can do to an individual,” Lalas told USA.Arsenal.com “In 1994, my world changed and a whole world opened up to me and I was so fortunate to be given opportunities.” After receiving offers from across Europe, he finally settled on Italy, signing with Padova.
But he came very close to plying his trade in North London.
After finishing his university career at Rutgers, Lalas played for the 1992 U.S. Olympic soccer team in Barcelona. At 22, his play started to get him some attention. The state of the game as it was in America at the time, he did not have many options to continue playing after the Olympics ended. He did, however, know former Arsenal great Bob McNab.
“He was living out in California,” Lalas said, “and I drove out there to train with him because he wanted to see what I was all about. And I guess I passed that initial test, and he was able to set me up with a little trial during the winter of ’92.”
What happened next was a trip to London, and the opportunity to train with some of Arsenal’s biggest legends.
“I trained with the Reserves. It was a very eye-opening experience to be over there, and to be running the steps at Highbury with Tony Adams, and Paul Merson,” Lalas said. “Ian Wright picked me up for breakfast and took me out to dinner. It was an interesting experience.”
Back in the early 1990s, Arsenal was not known for its flair. It probably surprise some that a conservative, 'Bank of England' club such as Arsenal would give a chance to an American player, much less one with such a personality.
“It was fun to see how that professional system worked. I had never played a professional game or a World Cup. It was really my first opportunity to see a professional club, and to see one of the elite ones, and some great players that I had seen play on TV and now be sitting next them and having dinner… it was pretty cool.”
While his time in London did not turn into a career with the Gunners, Lalas did manage to take the field and play for the Reserve team. Arsenal also helped to prepare him for something else.
“I went back and trained with the U.S. national team getting ready for the ’94 World Cup.”
And we all know how that went.Copyright 2014 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source 20 Nov 2009