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Transmissions from an American journalist's 44 weeks in Moscow.

ALEXI LALAS DISHES ON SOCCER'S RUSSIAN PRESENT, AMERICAN FUTURE

ALEXI LALAS DISHES ON SOCCER'S RUSSIAN PRESENT, AMERICAN FUTURE

A version of this article first appeared on Kicking & Screening.

USMNT veteran Alexi Lalas has seen the beautiful game from the pitch, the board room and now the broadcast booth. He sat down with The Caviar Diplomat in the Fox studio off of Red Square to talk about his experience of Russia 2018 so far, his hopes for 2026…and of course, his favorite soccer film.

Gillian and Alexi

TCD: You’ve prepared for World Cups both as a player and as a broadcaster. How are the processes similar?

AL: There are similarities in the need to be able to distill things down to their essence, and not waste time, resources and energy doing things that you are never going to use. As a player you try to prepare for all possibilities, and your ability to react is part of the skillset you need for both.

From the television standpoint, you do all of this work, research, and have all of this data, and what ends up happening is what I call the “iceberg theory” — where only the tip of the iceberg actually makes it on air.  In order to have quality, you have to have all of the other foundations; that’s what gives you perspective, and that’s what gives you depth. You have a lot to get done, but it’s doing research on a game that I really love.

TCD: What has Russia gotten right, and what could have they have done better?

AL: There’s nothing I’ve seen that they’ve really gotten wrong…there’s a lot of traffic, but everybody understands that. So far all of the travel stories have been good. The crowds have been wonderful, and they have been big. 

I’m a child of the seventies and eighties growing up in suburban Detroit. We were talking about it back then, and we’re still talking about it now: “big, bad Russia.” It’s a place I had never been before, so it has been really interesting for me to see it through the lens of the World Cup, but also to compare and contrast and confirm or deny those preconceived notions that we all have about the country. At least initially, it has been wonderful. Some of it’s stereotypical, but I think there’s a recognition that this is their advertisement to the world, and many are on their best behavior. 

Generally everyone has been friendly—and yes, some of those stereotypes that we have about the Russian attitude, you can find—but they are really using the World Cup to their advantage to put the best face of their country out to the world.

TCD: We knew coming into the World Cup that lack of U.S. qualification would be a headwind for Fox. In light of this, how are you benchmarking success?

AL: It would be disingenuous for me or anybody to say that [lack of qualification] doesn’t matter. It does matter, and it’s not something that we wanted or that we planned for. When it happened, we all looked around and said “that sucks.” But the business of broadcasting is exactly that — a business, a responsibility to deliver. 

Sure, you want to live up to what others have done in the past. I’m proud of the fact that I was part of the [2014] ESPN team that broadcasted. I want to live up to that, but also I want to surpass that and do it the Fox way. 

The other part is, I don’t think there’s another country that is better equipped to deal with a World Cup that doesn’t have the home team than the United States because of our incredible diversity. The soccer culture in the U.S. is passionate, it’s discerning. I would argue that it’s one of the most educated because it’s had to be. It’s no longer niche and underground, it’s well above-ground…and I think you’re seeing it really beat its chest this summer, whether it’s the numbers that we’ve had or just the response. 

The time zone isn’t easy, and the fact that the U.S. isn’t here isn’t easy, but those are all excuses. At least initially, it’s been wonderful the response that we’ve had.

TCD: Speaking of American soccer culture, how has the U.S. fan base changed since your playing days? Has it become more demanding of you?

AL: I think so. I think that there has been an evolution and a continued education—and that’s a good thing. We have a unique soccer culture that doesn’t exist elsewhere because of the fact that we aren’t necessarily a soccer-first country with all the competition from other sports. We are a young country, and very different in how we approach sports in general. We’ve created this unique version of the game both on and off the field, and I think we take real ownership of that. 

We can be hard on ourselves and we have an inferiority complex sometimes, but I think we need to pat ourselves on the back for what we have because it has been special. And the speed at which it has grown —multiple generations that define themselves through this game, but specifically through the American game: how they talk, how they dress, the games that they play—is remarkable. It’s a unique culture that I remain incredibly proud of.

TCD: In eight years, this culture you’ve described will have quite the spotlight shown on it. How much will the anticipation of hosting the 2026 World Cup impact U.S. soccer?

AL: This is a great thing for us as a soccer-playing nation. And for the actual team that will play there, it’s a great beacon to go toward. I was on this set when that announcement was made, and it really hit me because I started to think of what ’94 did for me individually, what it did for the sport - and it will do it again, but in a different way for the 2026 version of the U.S., Canada and Mexico. It will be special. I know how seminal that moment was for us in 1994. 

TCD: When we are all devastated with post-World Cup blues, which soccer film would be on your must-watch list this summer?

AL: I grew up watching Victory. And that was really something for an American growing up in the seventies in the suburbs, but it still remains a classic soccer movie. It was an incredible balance that they were able to have—a sports movie based around the World War II concentration camps. That was ballsy to be able to do that, and to make it work. 

I don’t think that the ultimate and defining soccer movie from an American perspective has been made yet. I’m not talking about documentaries — I mean a feature that is based on some story that speaks to the culture that we’ve been talking about. 

The trick, as you know with any movie, is to make it so good that you don’t have to know a damn thing about the game to enjoy it. And not everyone is able to accomplish that, but there’s a sweet spot where you make a film that while based on a sport, you don’t have to know about it to fall in love with it. There’s an American soccer movie out there to be made. 

TCD: I think you just threw down the gauntlet to America’s filmmakers for next year’s festival.

AL: Do it, I’ll promote it! But only if they give me a role.

WORLD CUP SUMMER READING

WORLD CUP SUMMER READING

FIVE WORLD CUP ODDITIES

FIVE WORLD CUP ODDITIES