The AT&T MLS All-Star Game is only a day away, and as anticipation builds, I had the chance to spend an afternoon on the phone with former Major League Soccer star Alexi Lalas talking about the upcoming match and all things soccer.
Lalas has a resume that would make any American soccer player proud. His career achievements include the 1991 Hermann Trophy, representing the United States as a two-time Olympian in 1992 and 1996, as well as being a member of both the 1994 and 1998 World Cup squads.
Lalas also enjoyed a great club career with time in Italy, Ecuador and the United States' MLS. His last career move to the L.A. Galaxy is where he finally achieved major club success. During his three seasons with the Galaxy, he raised the 2000 CONCACAF Champions' Cup, 2001 US Open Cup, 2002 MLS Cup and the 2002 MLS Supporters Shield before retiring in 2003.
However, a lot of things have changed since the ESPN analyst and Major League Soccer Hall of Fame inductee last played in an MLS All-Star Game in 1999. During his time in the league, MLS All-Star games were played in a traditional East versus West or U.S. Stars versus World Stars format, as is the case with the majority of professional American sports.
In the last eight years, the MLS has broadened its audience and the anticipation of the All-Star game by bringing in well-known international club teams such as Chivas de Guadalajara, Fulham FC, Chelsea FC, Celtic FC, West Ham United FC, Everton FC and for the last two years, Manchester United.
This year’s 2012 AT&T MLS All-Star Game features the best 18-man squad that MLS has to offer against reigning UEFA Champions League winners Chelsea. When the two sides last met in the 2006 All-Star Game, the MLS All-Stars emerged as 1-0 winners, and Dwayne DeRosario was named the MVP. It is possible DeRosario could once again be a thorn in the London club’s side, as he was named to MLS All-Star team again in 2012.
When asked which MLS players he is excited to see in the match against Chelsea, Lalas named several.
Alexi Lalas: San Jose’s Chris Wondolowski, who is leading the league in goals and trying to get the all-time MLS single-season scoring record...Osvaldo Alonso from Seattle, a defensive midfielder that has been so important over the last couple of years to the club...Dan Kennedy, the goalkeeper for Chivas USA, who is playing with a pretty weak team in Chivas and continues to get shutouts and big saves at a time where there’s not a lot of great young American goalkeepers.
Thomas Atzenhoffer: What do you think about Chris Pontius? Do you believe this is a good call up for him and do you think that he potentially could be one of the younger players that has a chance to move to Europe later in his career?
AL: Oh, I think so. You know he had such a difficult and heartbreaking season last year with the injury and the way that he has come back, and not just the goals, that’s obviously important, but I think just the way that he has played is wonderful and has really brought him back into the conversation of players that have potential not only to go to Europe but also to be involved with Jurgen Klinsmann’s squad going forward.
It’s fun to see a player like that come back from adversity and start to do the things that a lot of us early on thought he was capable of but had never attained.
TA: It is unfortunate that Heath Pearce is injured, as he has had a great season as well; what are your thoughts on him?
AL: It is difficult for anyone to get traded early in the season and to come in and not only start right away and make a positive impact, but even be named captain. I think it shows a lot about him and about how Hans Backe looks at him, how his teammates look at him.
So I think he looked at it much more as an opportunity and he has grabbed a hold of it with both hands, and although he is hurt for the AT&T MLS All-Star Game, it is certainly an All-Star nod that is much deserved.
TA: I also believe it is a great story to see Jay DeMerit in the All-Star game. Your thoughts on his selection?
AL: Yep, Jay has been an important part of Vancouver, and yes, Martin Rennie has done a great job of bringing in some great pieces defensively. I think Jay had to figure out the MLS last year and had to deal with some injuries, but now he’s got some consistency under his belt, he's playing with a better team, which certainly helps from a mental stand point. He’s doing what a lot of people wanted him to do and expected him to do last year.
TA: Switching to the Chelsea side, there has been a lot of controversy between Roberto Di Matteo first not being sure if he was going to get the job [manager of Chelsea], although he seemed to deserve it, and with that now sorted, the club also has a lot of new young talent between Eden Hazard, Marko Marin and others. What do you see from them moving forward?
AL: That’s what makes this AT&T MLS All-Star Game so exciting—the stories on both sides. And when you look at Chelsea and what they have done with the transition they are in, we don’t know what kind of Chelsea we are going to see going into the EPL [English Premier League], season and that makes it so interesting.
To see what Roberto Di Matteo is going to do now that he’s not just an interim coach but is the coach, and he’s brought in Marko Marin and Eden Hazard, who are two great talents, young guys like [Romelu] Lukaku.
Who is going to replace Didier Drogba? Is it going to be a younger player like Lukaku, or is it going to be Fernando Torres, and what type of Fernando Torres are we going to see with Chelsea this year? Because, let’s be honest, even though they won the Champions League, the way that they did it was very unique and very defensive and basically a one-off.
TA: What do you see as far as match prediction? The last couple of years, the MLS has been defeated after before having seemed to be getting the better of the European clubs. What do you think for his year?
AL: You know, it’s hard for an MLS team to come together and to get organized in a very short period of time. Having said that, I actually think the MLS team is going to do much better against Chelsea. Chelsea, like I said, is a team in transition. When you have an opportunity to show like we [MLS All-Stars] did in 2006 when we beat Chelsea then, that message goes out and people wake up in the morning and read that, and it's important, and that’s a good message to send.
I think it’s a major opportunity and I think the players [AT&T MLS All-Stars] recognize that, and actually, I think that the MLS All-Stars are going to come out and give a good account of themselves.
TA: What do you think of the changes to the All-Star game in the last eight years, having gone to playing international clubs rather than the traditional East versus West format that a lot of United States sports go with? Do you think that has helped to raise the profile of MLS?
AL: Yes, I think it is brilliant and it is inspired, and it puts us [MLS] at a completely different level when you compare our All-Star game to different sports that have just succumbed to catharsis. It is competitive, it is teams that people want to see, and, in many cases, like this AT&T MLS All-Star Game, it involves an elite team from an elite league in the world.
TA: What is your best personal experience from an All-Star game in the past?
AL: From an All-Star game? Let’s see—you know, early in the days, it was a free-for-all. It was a lot of back-and-forth. It was lots of goals and not a lot of defending, and so for a defender, it was no fun, I’ll be quite honest with you.
Being that, the worst part of my All-Star experiences were usually the 90 minutes or the 45 minutes that I was actually on the field. The rest of the party was wonderful. But for the most part, when I was on the field, I was running around chasing people and no one was defending and I was basically sitting on top of my box trying to make sure that people didn’t score.
TA: Alexi, thank you so much for your time this afternoon.
The complete 2012 AT&T MLS All-Star team is listed below.
GK: Dan Kennedy (Chivas USA), Jimmy Nielson (Sporting Kansas City)
DF: Steven Beitashour (San Jose Earthquakes), Aurelien Collin (Sporting Kansas City), Ramiro Corrales (San Jose Earthquakes), Jay Demerit (Vancouver Whitecaps FC), Justin Morrow (San Jose Earthquakes), Heath Pearce (New York Red Bulls), Carlos Valdes (Philadelphia Union)
FW: Thierry Henry (New York Red Bulls), Eddie Johnson (Seattle Sounders), Chris Pontius (DC United), Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes)
For more coverage of my exclusive interview with Alexi Lalas thanks to AT&T, please visit SoccerWithOutLimits.com (SWOL) today and over the coming weeks.
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