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WORLD CUP '94 / 25 DAYS AND COUNTING : A SOCCER ROCKER : Lalas Plays to Own Beat : U.S. Defender Is a Hit With Fans but Hits Sour Note With Game's Purists

May 23, 1994|MIKE PENNER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Pete Townshend had his generation, Alexi Lalas has his, which partially explains:

--The wild red mane and straggly goatee that give Lalas the appearance of a grunge beast who took a wrong turn at Aberdeen and wound up on a soccer field;

--The self-produced, self-distributed Alexi Lalas rock CD, featuring the sing-along favorite "Kickin' Balls;"

--The self-styled Alexi Lalas logo, which is tattooed on his right ankle and is a registered trademark in the United States;

--The Upper Deck World Cup edition trading card, picturing Lalas in very cool black shades, acoustic guitar strapped to his shoulder;

--And the consuming lifelong dream that continues to drive Lalas as he approaches his 24th year.

"I can die a happy man," Lalas says, "if someone offers me an endorsement for 7-Eleven Slurpees."

A look of absolute bliss spreads across Lalas' face. Ah, the whirled cup. Lalas gazes skyward as he contemplates the frothy crushed ice and treacly cherry syrup, beckoning him as they do every day between practice sessions with the U.S. national team.

"I live and breathe 'em," Lalas says. "I grew up on them. To be able to endorse them--that would be beautiful, man, because I love 'em and I want to spread the gospel of Slurpees."

If this sounds in any way similar to Winona Ryder's ode to the Big Gulp in the movie "Reality Bites," congratulations, you have wandered into the right demographic. Born in 1970 and arriving at the world's stage in 1994, Alexi Lalas is an American sports hero for his times, where doing it yourself is the only reliable means to success, and peace, love and understanding can be found at the bottom of a wax-coated paper cup.

He is also ahead of his time--an American-born-and-raised soccer player with his own cult following, complete with post-match choruses of squealing teen-age girls and appearances on CNN, ESPN and the cover of Sports Illustrated For Kids.

"Bar none, he is the most interviewed man in America, I don't care what anybody says," jibes U.S. goalkeeper Tony Meola, who goes back to the days when the prescribed behavior for the typical American soccer player was to be unseen and not heard.

Back to the days of January, 1994.

Lalas is rewriting the rules, one autograph at a time. He is reeling off a few dozen more after a luncheon at the Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles when a man sidles up next to him and says, "I thought you were going to sing a song for us."

Franz Beckenbauer used to get the same thing all the time.

"Hey, they didn't invite me to, man," says Lalas, who left his six guitars at home. "They're scared. They're scared I'm going to embarrass them or something. Oh well."

"I like your record," the man says.

Lalas stops signing.

"Did you?" he asks eagerly.

"Yeah."

"All right!" Lalas replies, nodding intensely. "There's the man, there's the man. That's one more.

"What comes after tin?" Lalas muses. "Nickel? The album has just gone nickel."

Later the same day, Lalas is cruising the Santa Ana Freeway, heading to his San Juan Capistrano apartment, when a car pulls up alongside him. The man behind the wheel is holding up a soccer magazine and waving it to get Lalas' attention--a drive-by salute from the fast lane.

"He didn't want to talk or anything, he just wanted to say hello," Lalas says. "He was obviously a soccer fan. He recognized me and he just wanted to be acknowledged.

"That was very cool."

When he arrives at his apartment, Lalas finds a long, thin UPS package waiting for him.

"All right," Lalas yelps as he drags the box onto the living room floor and begins tearing at one end.

Soon, he is pulling out a stack of wall posters. They are huge full-color likenesses of Lalas, each bearing an inscription in 1960s-era psychedelic typeface: "The Alexi Lalas Experience."

Just a gift from the guitar company that recently signed Lalas to an endorsement contract.

"This," Lalas says, "is very cool."

The Alexi Lalas Experience? At the moment, Lalas isn't looking to trade.

*

Christmas, 1992, was not very cool. Lalas spent it alone, holed up in a drab London hotel room, holding out hope that his month-long tryout with the renowned English club, Arsenal, might produce something tangible, like a paycheck.

"I'd just finished with the Olympics," Lalas says, "and I had nothing else going. Nobody wanted me or anything like that. I was just hanging out back home in Detroit for a little bit when, luckily, somebody offered me an opportunity to go over and try out for Arsenal in London, which is arguably one of the greatest teams in the world.

"I had nothing, no guarantee. Somebody offered this tryout--that was it. So I packed my bag and spent all of December trying out for this team.

"Here I am, a guy with no experience, no name, trying out for one of the world's best teams. And in England, defenders are a dime a dozen.

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