Editor’s Note: We’ve had a few pieces lately that involved , specifically, Alexi Lalas and his time overseas in Serie A with Padova.
Thus we decided to reach out to the now-ESPN analyst and get his perspective on playing abroad. The following by….Alexi Lalas, with questions by Eric Giardini:
TSG: You joined Padova in 1994 during the height of Catenaccio that the great Milan teams of the late 1980’s and early 1990’s were using so successfully to win 3 European titles and 5 Scudettos. What was it like playing this defensive style of soccer and how did it differ from your duties with the USMNT?
Alexi Lalas: The defensive tactics of Italian soccer are well documented. And if you’re a club like Padova, who’s simply looking to stay up in Serie A, your reliance on defense is only amplified.
We were not going to be possessing the ball or dictating play against most teams. So we basically played in a 5-3-2. The player in the middle of the back 5 would often fall back like a sweeper and provide additional safety and another layer of cover. The outside backs only pushed forward on the counter.
But from the first day I arrived we trained on our defensive team shape, it was as important as stretching.
The theory was pretty simple: We don’t have the individual quality compared to the other teams, so if players know their ideal defensive position in relation to the ball, then you hedge your bets. If the opponent ultimately pulls off something magical then so be it, but make them earn it.
Ultimately, the overall quality of player is what separated us from the big clubs. When we finally did win the ball we simply looked to counter or score off a set piece.
Now to play this way requires patience and dedication because there is always the lure of pushing forward. This must be resisted, which is not always easy for an American player.
As Americans, we’re about action and risk, and we possess an overwhelming confidence in our ability to overcome and prevail. It is part of what makes us great, but it has its place and time. I had to condition myself to ignore the frustration that inevitably comes from playing in such a cautious manner for extended periods of time. I had to learn to not only appreciate this style but embrace it.
With the USMNT we were mostly of like mind when it came to our team mentality. There is strength in numbers and so while we certainly defended much of the time we also fed off of the desire to push forward and risk more. But the lessons I learned from my time in Italy helped me become better at channeling and harnessing my “American” tendencies. I learned that while having the confidence to throw caution to the wind can be an incredible asset, knowing when and how to throw caution to the wind is a developed skill and what ultimately dictates success.
TSG: Although Catenaccio is no longer in style in Serie A, Italian clubs are still known for defense and this goes up all the way up to the National Team. In your estimation, are Americans a bit more “reluctant” to head to a stereotypic “defensive” league in lieu of something that fits more into the US style of play—like England or Germany?
Alexi: I think Serie A has a branding problem.
I think any reluctance comes more from the perception (and some reality) that the overall quality has fallen off rather than the defensive style associated with Serie A.
The rise of the EPL only highlights any disparities.
I think an American “attacking” player could actually benefit immensely from playing in Italy precisely because of some of the defensive schemes employed. Attacking players in Italy must learn to value and capitalize on limited opportunities which is a quality that a player could utilize on the USMNT where we’ve seen that chances are often few and far between.
TSG: What pressures did you feel in becoming the first American in the modern era to play in Serie A?
Alexi: You have to remember that this was back when Serie A was widely regarded as the #1 league in the world.
All the best players, all the money and all the attention.
As the first American I felt a huge responsibility to leave a good impression, but I also had to be myself. That I was coming off of a successful World Cup gave me a little cushion, but not much. I had to adapt to a new culture and language while trying to perform in the fishbowl that is Italian soccer. It wasn’t easy but it was rewarding in the end. There is no doubt I became a better soccer player by playing in Italy, but more importantly I became a better person because of the challenges.
TSG: Short list of Americans who have played in Italy:
Based on this list, 3 of the 4 have at least 1 Italian parent and Italian citizenship. How much do you think this factors into Americans playing in Italy as opposed to in other European countries?
Alexi: Even in America the Italian culture is legendary in terms of the support and strength it provides. The concept of family is so revered that it often guides your choices in life. So I think it’s only natural that there is an attraction for players with Italian backgrounds to look to Italy. I think that is also the reason so few Italians play outside of Italy. Sometimes it’s hard to leave the warmth of a cocoon that becomes so much a part of your identity.
TSG: Clarence Seedorf remarked last summer that he believes the number of Americans in Italy is so small because of the familiarity that other countries provide – namely language similarities. Do you agree with Seedorf’s idea?
Alexi: I can see that to a certain extent.
I vividly remember being at preseason and conjugating verbs with my roommate (the only guy that spoke any English). It was crucial that I learned the language for two reasons: 1. I wanted to show people I was making the effort to respect the language. 2. I wanted to understand what the hell people were saying about me. I was lucky that I was able to pick it up quickly and it bought me some credibility with the fans and media. But if a language barrier is taken out of the equation from the start, as it is in the EPL, it’s one less thing to worry about. Because when you get on the field nobody cares if you’re struggling to assimilate, so the quicker you can do it the better chance you have at succeeding.
TSG: Lastly, what is your fondest memory of playing in Italy and how were you received by the fans?
Alexi: Scored winning goal against AC Milan. Enough said. The fans were great. I was a bit of an oddity because of being American and of course the way I looked and acted. I wasn’t the best player they had ever seen but I think they enjoyed that simple fact that I was something different. I like to think I’m remembered by Italians in a positive light, and that’s enough for me.
Alexi Lalas on playing in Serie A.