Football / World Cup Countdown: Lalas intent on rocking the old order: The American defender with a rebel image. Nick Halling reports

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The Independent Online
THE business with 'that blond man' in Rotterdam may ultimately have led to England's failure to reach the World Cup finals but for many, the belief that the Graham Taylor regime was doomed came in Boston last June, when a player with a thick mop of red hair scored the second goal in England's 2-0 defeat at the hands of the United States.

Bad enough that we should lose to the Americans, but the futility of it all seemed to be compounded by the fact that the goal was claimed by a fringe member of the squad, a former ice hockey player who lists rock and roll as his first love and who possessed no experience of club football.

The moment proved to be pivotal in the sporting career of the scorer, Alexi Lalas. Since then, the 23-year-old from Michigan with straggly goatee beard and beaded necklaces has progressed from the sidelines into a central member of Team USA's drive

towards respectability.

'It was an ultimate moment in my life, something I'll remember for a long time,' he said. 'I was just sitting on the bench, not doing much, hoping to get a chance to play. Then Thomas Dooley got hurt and they put me in. From then on, I got more playing time, scored a few goals, and eventually became a starter.'

He has since consolidated a position in the heart of Team USA's fragile defence. When he arrived at the national training centre in Mission Viejo, California, in January 1993, his future looked far from promising. Lalas had been player of the year for his New Jersey-based college, Rutgers, and represented his country at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, but Team USA's coach, Bora Milutinovic, knew little about him, and first impressions were not favourable.

'He told me to get rid of the hair and beard,' Lalas said. 'There I was, a 22-year-old punk, no experience, and Bora said: 'OK, I'm going to see how much this guy wants to play on this team. What will he do?' For me the test was the hair. I bitched and moaned, couldn't believe I was being made to conform. But at that point, I would have shaved all my body hair to play on this team.'

It did not take Milutinovic long to look beyond the unkempt image, Lalas proving by hard work and determination that, while he may not look the part, he is a young man who is passionate about what he does, whether it is kicking a football, or playing music with The Gypsies, a band he formed in college days. Eventually, the hair restrictions were lifted.

Respect was forthcoming from other sources. 'People look at the animation, the red hair, the goatee, the rock and roll stuff, and they tend to dismiss him,' the goalkeeper, Tony Meola, said. 'What they don't realise is that he does everything with total commitment.'

Meola, briefly with Brighton and Watford, believes a solid World Cup showing could lead to a career in England for his team- mate. 'That's where he belongs,' he said. 'He loves the battle in the air, being in the thick of things with bodies flying around. He would be a pleasure for any English coach because the game over there suits his style of play.'

'He's a free spirit but surprisingly, he's very disciplined on the field,' the assistant coach, Steve Sampson, said. 'He can improvise, but usually stays within the role designed for him. He knows he's on the team to man-mark, to win the ball and score from free kicks. With the World Cup, maybe we'll see some of that looseness and creativity come out as well.'

Lalas admits that he would

enjoy the challenge of playing in Europe, but in the longer term, music may be his calling. The Mission Viejo training complex was formally opened with a song written and performed by the 6ft 3in, 14st, central defender, who before last month's game against Estonia rendered a moving version of 'The Star Spangled Banner'.

Milutinovic has worked his players hard this year, but Lalas has been able to write, perform, direct and produce his first CD with The Gypsies. The result, Woodland, may not become an international best-seller, but his involvement with every aspect of the project's production confims the dedication Lalas brings to his work.

'Music has always been a huge part of my life, and the coaches and players here have been very supportive of my musical career, knowing it's something I need in order to perform on the field,' he said. 'I love to entertain, to connect with an audience and see them smile. That's really what we do as soccer players. We're entertainers: we practice something and we take it out there and hope people like it. And when it comes off, it's the best, man.'

Rock on, Alexi.

(Photograph omitted)

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