The confusion and adventure of his new life are a wonder to behold.
"I never expected any of this," says the 24-year-old Lalas. "I never set out to play professional soccer as a kid, much less play over here. I never had the dreams. That's why this is so crazy. I never would've thought of this in a million years."
He is the American. He is the unlikely pioneer, sketched out in Peter Max Day-Glo colors, red hair flying, goatee hanging off his chin, set against a classical white-marble background. Professional soccer? Italy? He is the first American ever to do this, to play in the best damn soccer league of them all, Serie A of the Italian League, to play against the best players in the world. Everything is new and very different. Everything has happened very fast.
As recently as the middle of June, he had no thought that any of this could take place. At that time, the horizons of virtually any American soccer player went no further than a quietly hopeful tomorrow, than the idea of somehow still being allowed to play the sport after college was finished. There was no demand, no expectation. Lalas was thinking that maybe he would try the music business with his band, the Gypsies. Or maybe he would head into the real-life job market. Both of those possibilities stood a better chance than this one. This was a fantasy that couldn't even be considered.
"The entire summer is a blur," he says. "The World Cup is a blur. I can't remember any of the particular things that happened. I can talk about them, sound pretty good, because I have seen a lot of the stuff replayed on television, but I don't really remember what I was thinking and what I was doing. All I know is that I was having a blast, and it still hasn't stopped."
A rocket came past, and he reached out and grabbed a handle. Simple as that. An international spaceship landed in his backyard, and he was taken as happy captive by soccer-crazed aliens. The World Cup came to the U.S. for the first time, and he somehow became the rock-and-roll American face of the game, looking outrageous, saying outrageous things, then running onto the field and playing better than anyone had suspected he could. By the time the Cup ended—after the U.S. had beaten Colombia 2-1 in a surprise and made the second round, another surprise, and lost a surprising 1-0 game to eventual champion Brazil—he had completed the late-night hat trick, talking with Koppel and Leno and having Letterman trim an inch off his beard.
The Americans' success was his success. He was the U.S. representative on the All-Tournament team. The billion or so people in the worldwide television audience had watched him and remembered. He had a shoe deal in the works and an agent in Brussels and offers to play for Coventry City in the English Premier League and for Bocum in the top-rated German Bundesliga and here in the most unlikely, high-powered setting of all.
"I looked at the different places, thought about all of them, but I kept coming back to the thought that 20 years from now, if I didn't come here, I'd be sitting around, wondering if I could have played in Italy," he says. "This is the best. No one has ever had this chance."
The team, Padua, was working on its own little blur of success. In European soccer the composition of the top, major leagues varies from year to year. The four teams that finish at the bottom of the 18-team major leagues are dropped back into the leagues below them, relegated to the minors. The top four minor league teams are brought to the majors. Under this system, if the Detroit Tigers finished last, say, in the American League, they would be replaced by, say, the Toledo Mud Hens of the International League. Padua was moving to Serie A from Serie B for the first time in 32 years.
Serie A teams can play as many as three foreigners in a game and have as many foreigners as they want on their rosters. With increased ticket prices and increased expectations, Padua moved cautiously into this market. It picked up Goran Vlovic, a 22-year-old Croat striker, and it picked up Lalas, the 6'3" defender, and that finished the budget. Underdog joined underdog. Lalas was given a $500,000 salary for one year, plus the use of a car and a house. He became Padua's big gamble.