England vs USA: Alexi Lalas on why all roads lead to the 2026 World Cup for the United States

Exclusive interview: Lalas has experienced a tournament on home soil and is hoping the US can build a team worthy of hosting it again in eight years time

Wednesday 14 November 2018 12:22
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Wayne Rooney returns to England squad: former England captain speaks ahead of Wembley farewell against US

It was a goal that inspired some of the more imaginative tabloid headlines of the 1990s – and a header which put Alexi Lalas on a path that would see him become the first American to play in Serie A and the world’s most recognised footballer from across the pond.

His second half header against Graham Taylor’s England - or the PLANKS as they were memorably dubbed - put the USA 2-0 up and effectively put the seal on one of the most humiliating defeats in English football history. Although given they had just succumbed to Norway in an arguably worse display just six days before, competition for that title was hotting up.

Now 48 and with a far more respectable haircut, Lalas remains one of the most eminent figures in US football, and a man inextricably linked with the 1994 World Cup finals, the last England failed to qualify for.

As America prepare to run out against England at Wembley, the boot is squarely on the other foot.

Lalas scored one of the most famous goals in US football history

The USA are still struggling coming to terms with ducking out on Russia 2018 – their first qualification failure since 1986.

Gareth Southgate’s side, meanwhile, are flying high after reaching a first World Cup semi-final since 1990 and, last month, sealing a stunning away win against Spain in the Nations League. Few expect the USA to deflate the mood on Thursday night.

“I loved watching England at the World Cup,” says Lalas. “I think everyone did. From the moment Harry Kane scored the winner against Tunisia, the mood felt different. England, rightly or wrongly, expect to go into every tournament and win it but these players seemed to handle that expectation differently, instead of it making them smaller, it made them grow.”

That’s something that the guitar player from Michigan knows all about. By his own admission, Lalas was never the most gifted footballer in that USA team but, like a number of England players this summer, he squeezed the absolute maximum out of his capabilities.

His towering header past Chris Woods in the England goal at the Foxboro Stadium coupled with his exultant run and arm-whirring celebration remains one of the most iconic football images of the 1990s. That famous win - although not quite as seismic as their 1950 World Cup humbling of England - also went a long way to helping the USA develop the self-confidence which helped them so much the following year.

“Listen, beating England is one of the most satisfying things any sportsman can ever do,” says Lalas, laughing. “But the way we played that afternoon in Boston gave us a massive amount of belief. We weren’t playing in any qualifiers at the time obviously, but beating England really put us on the US sporting map. It was a massive win with the World Cup just around the corner.”

Lalas was part of his home World Cup in 1994

The tournament will return to the USA – alongside Canada and Mexico – in 2026 but failure to qualify from their CONCACAF group 12 months ago has added a sense of urgency to the rebuilding process.

Getting a full-time coach appointed would be a start, with the role currently held by interim boss, Dave Sarachan, who was initially to take over for a single match. Over ten games and 12 months later he’s still in the dugout. On the pitch, though, a team packed full of young players, many of whom are now playing in Europe, does offer a window into a brighter future.

“I think there’s a lot of hope being invested in the young talent that we’ve got in the US with the expectation that this will be fostered all the way through to 2022 and 2026,” says Lalas. “I think that can lead to some good things.

“Putting these players against some of the elite teams in world football – which is why we want to be playing against the likes of England and Italy – is crucial. For us, it was an incredible failure not to qualify for the World Cup but making it to a World Cup is something we’ve done since 1990. It’s not a cause for celebration anymore. It’s an expectation.

The US are building towards hosting the World Cup again (Getty Images for FOX Sports)

“Now we need to move beyond that and become one of the elite teams in world football. If we’re ever going to have any hope of winning the World Cup we need to consistently come up against the best in the world and compete. This is an England team that is the best in the world – playing them at Wembley is probably as big a test as you can get at the moment.”

Ensuring that Wayne Rooney’s England farewell doesn’t feature the fairytale ending of a final Wembley goal will be enough to occupy the USA from the off. Although for some across the Atlantic, his blistering form in the MLS would probably have been enough to merit a recall in normal circumstances.

“I was around the Galaxy when we signed David Beckham and there’s a reason you sign big names, big time players,” says Lalas.

“One of them is what you hope they can do on the field. It’s a calculated gamble in many cases, you try to hedge your bets with the right signing. But certainly this has gone off probably better than even DC United thought it was going to.

“You do these things to create relevancy in local markets. And in the case of a Beckham or a Zlatan (Ibrahimovic) or a Wayne Rooney to create global relevancy. When you do that, you bring attention. Most of it’s positive. There’s certainly some negative attention it can bring too but you’ll take that because people are talking about you.

Rooney has impressed in his start to life in MLS 

“It has been fun to see the reaction to Wayne Rooney and it has also been fun to see Wayne Rooney’s reaction to the MLS. It’s very, very different for players who have been playing in a certain league or a certain climate. MLS is a very challenging environment and some take longer than others to adapt. But Wayne seems to have adjusted really well.”

Rooney has three years left on his current deal with DC United, but which time we should know if the USA have managed to avoid the pitfalls of qualification en route to Qatar 2022. For Lalas, though, all roads lead to a home World Cup in 2026.

“People remember 1994, I lived the power of what a World Cup can do to an individual,” says Lalas. “But I also saw what it could do to a country and a culture. It changed everything for my country and our soccer culture.

“Now we get to do it with our friends and neighbours, Canada and Mexico. I think it can be the most successful World Cup in history.”

All the USA need is a team to match.

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