Alexi Lalas, a U.S. national soccer team defender, did two star turns last week. On Thursday night he charmed an overflow crowd of teammates, soccerphiles and TV cameramen at Hennessey's Tavern in Laguna Beach, Calif., where he played acoustic guitar and sang tunes by the likes of Bob Seger and John Cougar Mellencamp as well as his own Kickin 'Balls. With a mop of red hair and a goatee that could almost double as a necktie, the 23-year-old Lalas might have passed for a retro beat poet. But his mellow facade melted when Ian Astbury, The Cult's lead singer, joined him onstage for a number. "This is so cool," Lalas said. "As kids we used to put on The Cult before games and just go out and beat on people."
Then on Saturday, Lalas electrified a more sizable SRO turnout of 10,173 at Cal State—Fullerton, where the U.S. faced Switzerland in a preview of their opening match of the 1994 World Cup. In the 88th minute of the 90-minute game, Lalas jostled Swiss defender Andre Egli into accidentally heading the ball past his own goalkeeper to salvage a 1-1 draw. While the two teams will probably use vastly different lineups when they meet in Cup play, on June 18 at the Silverdome in Pontiac, Mich., this matchup was instructive for some.
"Based on today, I'd say we're as good as them," said U.S. assistant coach Steve Sampson. "Now we have to show we're better."
Swiss coach Roy Hodgson demurred. "As far as what this game means in June?" he said. "Absolutely nothing."
The game meant enough to the frisky Lalas that he rocketed over a fence and up a hill at the end of the field to celebrate the goal he influenced but didn't score. "I was going to dive, I was going to get any fiber of my body on the ball," Lalas recalled later. "But this guy's in my way. So I say, 'Hey, why don't you score this goal for us? You look like a nice fella.' "
In linking his roles as a musical headliner and a would-be soccer header, Lalas said, "It was like a family effort both times. Everyone came out to support me when I sang, and in the game, we didn't give up. We hung together."
Lalas and his 23 U.S.-based teammates are indeed close-knit, having trained together daily in Mission Viejo, Calif., for a year. Some of them passed up tryouts with overseas club teams, which would have provided immeasurable match experience, to stay close to U.S. coach Bora Milutinovic. But another dozen or so U.S. players do compete abroad now, and those who stayed home fear that the inscrutable Milutinovic may give the foreign-based players an edge when he fills out the U.S. team's final 22-man Cup roster in June. So those in Mission Viejo are on a mission to keep winning and prove their worth.
Saturday's comeback marked their second straight exercise in brinksmanship. On Jan. 15, in Tempe, Ariz., the U.S. dumped Cup qualifier Norway 2-1 in the 90th minute. "All the guys here are good enough to play overseas," Lalas says. "It's just a matter of getting on the plane."
The 6'3", 195-pound Lalas, who as a sweeper at Rutgers was the 1991 college player of the year, has proved to be a versatile defender and a valuable scorer. Last year he headed in four goals in 25 games. He's adept with his elbows, too, having also been a high school hockey star in Birmingham, Mich. "Egli said I nudged him," Lalas said. "I think I pushed him."
When the two teams meet again before a vast worldwide audience, the Swiss aren't likely to so graciously provide the U.S. its offense. Still, Lalas grinned over Egli's mishap like a kid who had just jammed with The Cult. "I couldn't have done it better myself," he said.