07 June 2006

Alexi Lalas: Corporate Tool

Like most warm-blooded Americans, I loved seeing Alexi Lalas and his flowing ginger hair on the pitch during the '94 Cup. He made soccer seem pretty damn cool to a 16 year-old with a counter-culture obsession. Alexi was a guy who managed that rare combination of hipness and patriotism, which is a difficult thing to pull off. That makes it somewhat painful for me to say that I can't stand the man now.

There are two reasons not to fire Steve Sampson. I-66 at Quarter Volley captures it succinctly in his post 3-6-Done (which may be the greatest title used on this issue), and I addressed my thoughts on it earlier here. In short: Sampson had earned a chance to fail, and he wasn't given it fully.

However, what makes me angry and disappointed with Lalas isn't that I consider his firing of Sampson premature, but rather his emerging credibility gap. There are those who have taken issue with Lalas in the past, from his comments during his tenures at San Jose and New York. I, like many, laughed off Eric Wyndalda's displeasure when he felt betrayed by Lalas after Lalas said he wasn't leaving the Red Bulls before promptly leaving. Part of this was that it's easy to find pleasure in Wynalda's discomfort, but part of me was also willing to give Lalas the benefit of the doubt: Perhaps Lalas wanted to stay in New York, was giving every indication of his desire, and he got shown the door anyway.

Still, Alexi Lalas has gone out of his way to talk about the idea that he wasn't planning to fire Sampson at any point soon. Yes, he had given himself the out of "I will always do what is good for the team" but the message has always been the same -- Sampson is safe for the moment. Yet even as more stories appeared about Alexi sticking by Steve, Steve got the axe. It's not that firing Steve is the wrong decision. It is entirely possible that, in the short term, LA will get better. But as a general manager, as someone who's word is going to be analyzed by all your employees, Lalas has succeeded only in cultivating an air of paranoia and distrust which will filter down to the product on the field. Say you're player going through a rough stretch. Not only have the coach and Alexi privately told you to just play though it, but Alexi publicly comments that the team isn't looking to shop you around. Can you really feel safe there? As a coach, do you think Alexi is going to stick by you in a pinch if your team loses a few games in a row? Can he be trusted?

My sense is that Alexi Lalas, the guitar player who flirted with the rebel image, looks at corporate america as a den of vipers. But that image didn't repulse him so much as appeal to his competitive spirit. Now that he's an executive, he's acting out the impression of the coroprate world that he's always had. I do not manage a professional soccer team, but I do know something about honesty and trust, and that more than qualifies me to comment on this. Some executives do get by with a reputation for being liars, but far more often once the public can't believe you, in any business, then your days are numbered. It's why certain CEOs are replaced. It's also something that will plague LA until the day that Alexi Lalas is replaced. And once he's gone... I want him to stay the hell away from my team.