I had a chance to speak with Alexi Lalas today, exclusively for Bleacher Report.
We talked about the U.S.’ center-back situation, the Gold Cup, the U-20 World Cup, the Confederations Cup and Major League Soccer.
Bleacher Report: So, what are you doing in New York?
Alexi Lalas: I am at an AT&T store here in Manhattan with the new BlackBerry Q10 launch. I’ve been with AT&T now for a number of years. They have an association with soccer, MLS, the U.S. national team and the Mexican federation—they believe in soccer, not just as a sport, but as a business.
B/R: The U.S. national team had some pretty nice results in the recent World Cup qualifiers. As a former center-back, what did you think about the performances of Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez?
AL: It thought it was wonderful. I think Jurgen Klinsmann did a good job over the last month and really comes out smelling great because he was able to play two very young, inexperienced center-backs and not take the consequences in terms of results. That is huge. When you can not only get results, but get the players, as far as Omar and Besler, to consistently play next to each other and get that experience in games that count, that is huge going forward. What you’re starting to see is some consistency in the back four and certainly with those back two and I think it’s their spot to lose going forward.
B/R: If either one of them were to struggle—one year out from Brazil—who else do you see as giving the U.S. some depth at the center-back position?
AL: A year ago, we were talking about Geoff Cameron. He lost his spot at center-back and right-back and now we’ve seen him play very well as a defensive [midfielder], but he certainly can still play center-back as can Maurice Edu. Clarence Goodson is still right there in the mix. We’re going to see the return possibly of Oguchi Onyewu—that’s going to be interesting. But, I really think right now that pairing [Besler and Gonzalez] has been the best and will continue to be so unless injury or bad form comes into play. There is a good understanding between those two and that’s really what you need. Coupling that with the left-back and the right-back is going to be the trick and task for Jurgen Klinsmann going forward.
We’ve seen DaMarcus Beasley doing very well at the left-back and we’ve seen Brad Evans, of all people, come in and do very well at the right-back. You’ve got [Steve] Cherundolo coming back into the picture at some point later on this year, you’ve got Edgar Castillo who’s trying to make his mark and Fabian Johnson can play the left-back. There’s a lot of different options, but the fact that the two center-backs are solidified, at least for now, bodes well for the future of this team.
B/R: You mentioned Onyewu—do you think he has a realistic chance at working his way back as that fourth center-back?
AL: It’s hard. It’s hard to take a center-back there because it would be purely for a leadership type of thing. We all know he’s not the player that he once was. It’s very hard to do that with a center-back because if you are called upon, you’ve got to be able to go in there and you can’t get away with making mistakes because they’ll result in goals—as opposed to other places on the field where it’s a little easier to make mistakes. The Gold Cup is very important both for him and for Clarence Goodson to show Jurgen Klinsmann that they can have success and I’m talking about when you get down to the nitty-gritty and the end of the tournament, which we expect the U.S. to be in, and playing well against the likes of Mexico.
B/R: What do you think about the news of Clarence Goodson going to the San Jose Earthquakes?
AL: I think it’s a great move for San Jose, for MLS and for him. He needs to be playing, playing continually. He’ll be playing right in front of Jurgen Klinsmann in California. And look, Jurgen has shown he has no problem playing center-backs that are in MLS. It’s a strategic move and I think [Goodson] will benefit on and off the field from it and I look forward to watching him in MLS.
B/R: Carlos Bocanegra was one of the big players left off the roster for the Gold Cup. What did you think about that?
AL: It has to be couched with the fact that Jurgen Klinsmann did say he talked to him and it’s a situation in which he’s trying to figure out his club situation—that this was a mutual type of decision. I’m not sure that Carlos Bocanegra would have been involved anyway going forward. We all know, once again, he’s not the player that he once was. Jurgen Klinsmann has made it very clear that he has been a wonderful servant and a great captain, but his best days are behind him.
He’s another one where if his next move is back to MLS, I think that will enhance his limited possibilities. I’ll be interested to see where he does end up. If it is MLS and he starts playing and playing consistently and playing well, once again, he could be a great option going forward. But, certainly, I would say, at this point, it’s a long shot to make that World Cup squad.
B/R: Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore both seem to have had pretty strong runs in the qualifiers. Who do you see backing them up if either were to take a knock, or fall out of form?
AL: Well, I’m more worried about backing up Jozy Altidore, to be honest, than Clint Dempsey. I think that there’s enough midfield talent whether it’s moving [Graham] Zusi over or the return of Stuart Holden, possibly, or even further on down, Sacha Kljestan—those type of players that can figure it out. They’re not the same as Clint Dempsey, we all understand that, but it’s more worrisome if Jozy Altidore were to either, God forbid, get hurt, or just stop scoring, because there’s nobody else who can play that position the way Jurgen Klinsmann wants it to be played. And now, it’s coupled with scoring goals and that’s why everybody is so excited, but they also should hope and pray that this continues on from a U.S. national team perspective because there is no one waiting in the wings. There is no one to replace Jozy Altidore right now.
B/R: Were you surprised at all that Juan Agudelo was left off the Gold Cup roster?
AL: Nothing surprises me because, I’ve said this before, form is fallacy. It is an apples and oranges type of situation. Just because you’re playing well for your club doesn’t mean you’re going to play well for your national team. And just because you’re not playing well [for your club], doesn’t mean you can’t come in and play well [for your country].
As a coach, you want your players playing and playing well, but it’s also a personal decision from the national team coach. He going to get the players in who he feels will be able to fit his system. Some of those players might not be what we believe, on the surface, are the best players playing at the time, it’s who he feels are the best players to do what he needs to have done. And by the way, that system and structure [for the U.S.] is coming off an incredible month.
B/R: Is there anybody on the Gold Cup roster who you think could push their way onto the 23-man roster a year from now?
AL: I’m excited for Jack [McInerney] to see what he does, but I’m not so sure where he would fit in. Is he that type of second forward that replaces a Clint Dempsey? [McInerney] certainly doesn’t do what Jozy Altidore does, but the dynamic type of player that [McInerney] is, his runs in the channels are something that really helps.
As far as players for next summer, Stuart Holden. I think this will be a good indication of where he’s at and if he is recovered and can be that Holden that we all know and love, or if he’s just a different player after two years of injuries.
[Chris] Wondolowski is always going to be there because he’s a consistent goal scorer, so it’s important for him, not just to play well, but to score goals—to score as many as he possibly can at the international level.
B/R: I know you’re doing a lot of coverage right now for the Confederations Cup. Did you get a chance to watch the U.S. U-20’s in U-20 World Cup at all?
AL: Yes. We watched the games in the studio. It’s disappointing from a results standpoint, but more importantly, it’s disappointing that the players aren’t going to have the opportunity to go on and play in the knockout stage of a World Cup tournament. I always look at these things in terms of development. Just because they got knocked out of the tournament doesn’t mean that Tab Ramos didn’t do his job. I think ultimately, he will be judged, and should be judged, by the players that are able to go on and graduate to the [full] national team.
Maybe years from now, we’ll go back and say, ‘Yeah, it wasn’t a great performance, but Tab Ramos did his job in terms of identifying and cultivating the talent.’ So, I reserve judgment on youth national teams, just as I did when Caleb Porter’s team didn’t qualify for the Olympics. I reserve judgment until how we see these players pan out in the future because this is all geared for the full national team and winning a World Cup. And that’s the way you will be judged on what you’ve done in the past from a youth national team perspective.
B/R: Who’s your pick in the Confederations Cup final?
AL: I’ve got Spain beating Brazil. I think Brazil lacks discipline and I think when Spain does beat Brazil, they will be doing them a favor. I believe this Brazil team a year from now will win a World Cup, but they do need some discipline. They need a moment where they taste some bitterness and that could happen on Sunday.
Getting beaten by Spain could be the best thing to happen to them. I do believe that Spain is a better team and has been there before. I think [Spain] breathed a sigh of relief after the Italy game and will go into that final thinking ‘Hey, we’re Spain. It doesn’t matter that we’re playing Brazil’. And, I think in a strange way, it could benefit Brazil if they are beaten. If you’re a Brazil fan and your team loses the final, I think there is a definite silver lining.
B/R: Who do you see as the favorites right now in Major League Soccer?
AL: Portland is going great guns. Incredible credit to Caleb [Porter] not only for what he has done in terms of results, but the way they are getting results and the mental consistency they have, especially on the road. I’m not sure that it lasts, but they’re definitely someone to watch. You have to put them up against the big guys like Montreal—who I think will fade towards the end.
[FC] Dallas, when they have everybody and all guns blazing, they have it together and you can’t underestimate how important not having Brek Shea has been to Dallas.
This is about the time that Los Angeles comes together and figures it out every year. And RSL right now, they’ve gone through a huge transition personnel-wise and the way they’ve had to adjust. They’ve come out of that adjustment and they are seeing a much brighter second half of the season. I can really see them making a push.
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