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Alexi Lalas sees the irony. How could U.S. soccer's grunge-era clown prince, a red-maned, guitar-strumming, antiauthoritarian icon, become a clean-cut front-office suit running MLS's MetroStars--a team whose fans he famously flipped off when he played for the Metros back in 1998? "You know, sometimes the disease makes you strong," cracks Lalas, the former U.S. World Cup stalwart who was named MetroStars president and general manager on June 13. "I recognize the image that was a huge part of my playing career, but to an extent this is no different from what I was doing on the field. We're banging a drum, promoting and spreading the gospel of soccer."
His first task is to restore the MetroStars' congregation. From MLS's inception in 1996 the team was meant to be the league's flagship franchise. Instead the Metros have been a symbol of futility and, of late, mediocrity. They've never reached the league title game or won a major trophy. Average attendance this season at Giants Stadium is 11,728 in stand-alone games (those not part of doubleheaders involving marquee international teams), down from a stand-alone high of 17,815 in 2001.
But Lalas, 35, has a grand vision: He sees the MetroStars becoming an international superclub to rival Manchester United and Real Madrid. The first step is to win this year's MLS Cup, and do it in style. "Everyone in the organization has to realize we're in the entertainment industry," says Lalas, whose own music career has seen him release four rock albums. "The sooner we embrace it, the better off we'll be. We may be producing better soccer players today but not better soccer entertainers."
How he'll realize his vision is the big question, especially given MLS's salary cap of around $2 million per team. Like his employer, the Anschutz Entertainment Group (which owns five MLS teams), Lalas wants the league to scrap the single-entity business model, in which MLS, rather than individual teams, owns player contracts. Though that holds down costs, it also limits the ability to sign big-name players. "Single entity has enabled us to exist for 10 years," Lalas says, "but the time is coming to get rid of the training wheels and let owners try to make a go of it on their own." In time, he wants to see the Metros outbidding, say, England's Arsenal for a star player in his prime.
Before that can happen, MLS will have to start making money, and the MetroStars will need to build their long-awaited 30,000-seat stadium in Harrison, N.J. Lalas spent his first week on the job logging long hours in meetings with MetroStars players, coaches and supporters. "We need to find out why the fans haven't been coming, and look people in the eye and talk to them and listen," he says. "With the right situation we can create something special."
The immediate goal of winning MLS this year isn't out of reach. The 5-4-5 Metros boast the reigning MLS MVP in Amado Guevara, a crafty World Cup winner in 37-year-old Youri Djorkaeff, five-time MLS champ Jeff Agoos, proven goal scorer Ante Razov and 18-year-old Eddie Gaven, a top prospect. "There's a very good feeling inside this team," says third-year coach Bob Bradley, who's in the final year of his contract.
Lalas's first big change was to ask the blue-collar Bradley to wear a coat and tie on the sidelines, but that hardly meant the new G.M. had become uptight. Lalas spent his first game (a Metros win over Columbus) roaming the stands of Giants Stadium, fulfilling requests for autographs and even a reprise of his notorious one-finger salute. When Lalas did the latter, the hard-cores in Section 101 cheered. "Now it's becoming a ritual," Lalas says proudly. "If I have to go around and flip off every single person to fill that stadium, that's what I'm going to do. Hey, baby, it's all entertainment!" ?