To help preview tomorrow’s huge Copa America Centenario semifinal between the United States and Argentina, Delta Air Lines offered Stars and Stripes FC the chance to sit down for a chat with FOX Soccer analyst and USMNT legend Alexi Lalas. We spoke at length about the important match ahead, the perception surrounding Jurgen Klinsmann, and his opinion on the impending lineup changes.
SSFC: You're working with FOX during the Copa America and the TV ratings have been consistently breaking records. Can you explain what it feels like to be in the center of such an exciting summer where American soccer is one of the biggest sports stories in the country?
Alexi: I've been around for a long time. I've done a lot of these tournaments. Whether it was World Cups in 2010 or 2014 or the women's World Cup last summer. Our bosses love to tell us we're on a rocket ship and that we have to hold on tight and make sure that it goes in the right direction. That it's going up is one thing, but you have to aim it in the right place.
Having a U.S. team that does well certainly doesn't hurt. It's a great thing to have and something else to continue on with the stories. It's been fun, I've had a good time working with everyone on and off camera.
SSFC: How have you gotten along with the new cast of characters that FOX brought in to cover this tournament?
Alexi: There's an element of fun that we've brought. While we take ourselves seriously, we don't take ourselves too seriously. That's reflected in the way we've gone about broadcasting this. Whether it's Fernando Fiore or Rob Stone or Ally Wagner or any of the talent that we have out there, they all have different types of dispositions and different personalities. Through the tournament we've all learned to work together and provide entertaining and informative television, which is ultimately the goal. We wanted to make sure that we were having fun and that translated to the people watching because if nothing else, this is a fun time to be an American soccer fan.
SSFC: What do you make of America's reaction to you and Fernando Fiore's on-air relationship?
Alexi: The man is a wonderful performer and a real talent and he’s a friend. I knew Fernando for many years at different times but I haven’t worked with him in this proximity and consistency. I love it, it’s fun. He keeps us on our toes. He brings a sense of wonderment and fun and he’s a great performer. I want to be around people who are great performers and love the game and have fun talking about the game.
SSFC: How do you prepare for each broadcast? Are you a research-heavy guy?
Alexi: The stuff that actually makes air is only the tip of the iceberg and 90% of the stuff that you research never makes air but you need it for context and support. I’m surrounded by people who see the game in different ways and so we’re always talking. A lot of the stuff that you see on air comes from discussions we’ve had in production meetings or in make-up or wherever. Because we want it to reflect what people are doing on their couch or at the bar or in their car. We have these Periscope of Facebook Live chats where I’m getting as much feedback as possible because it generates ideas. Because I want to know what people are talking about and I want to make sure I have multiple opinions on things, because it makes my opinion ultimately I think that much better and have that much more context.
SSFC: Delta is offering the chance for fans to meet you at the Copa final. Can you tell us a little about that and what it means to you to be one of the faces of American soccer?
Alexi: I’ve flown on Delta for as long as I can remember and it keeps me comfortable and safe and it gives me the things I need to do my job. I’m going to get on my Delta flight on Friday and fly out to New York and be at MetLife Stadium for the final this weekend. Hopefully I’m going to be able to watch the USA in the final of Copa America. But regardless I’m going to be out there. I love to hang out with the folks and have those conversations, to actually have them in person, I love it. Whether they agree with me or not is irrelevant. I respect everybody’s opinion and you can come out and disagree with me, you can yell at me, you can do whatever you want. But having these types of conversations is fun and it’s what it’s all about, having different opinions and talking about the game.
SSFC: Do you think Jurgen Klinsmann has finally conceded the idea of playing a dominating style and finally accepted the "American" way?
Alexi: There’s a real pragmatism that’s crept into Jurgen Klinsmann’s approach and I love it. He deserves a tremendous amount of credit for what has happened this tournament. The consistency of lineups and the consonance that has translated into is important. When you look at Jurgen Klinsmann as the coach, sometimes he has confused or frustrated people, but in this tournament he has certainly got things right.
The way he’s gotten things right has been to employ what I would call a much more traditional and classic American approach and put players in position to succeed. He talks at times about kicking players out of their comfort zone, but there is a value and a benefit of having players in their comfort zone and you’ve seen that. The consistency of lineups, for example, has really translated into a more successful and confident team. So, I think Jurgen Klinsmann has gotten this right and deserves credit for this.
SSFC: Will people's perception of Klinsmann change after this summer or will it just quiet the doubters until the next misstep?
Alexi: This is part of the life of being a coach. Your only as good as your last game. We’ll head right back into qualifying and should their be missteps in qualifying I’m sure folks will be critical, as they should. At times I’ve been criticial, but I believe I’ve been fair in the way that I have assessed the situation. Having a successful Copa America will go a long way in changing the narrative and perspective when it comes to Klinsmann, but that’s only until something else goes wrong.
SSFC: Which American player has surprised you the most in this tournament?
Alexi: John Brooks has had a wonderful tournament at center back. Michael Bradley playing in that midfield role in front of the back four, a role he’s confident and comfortable in, has been wonderful. For those that said the possibility the end of Clint Dempsey was here. Well, news of his demise has been greatly exaggerated. The reliance on him and his ability to step up his game and consistently provide moments just shows fundamentally why he’s one of America’s greatest and continues to be so. The defense in general has been very, very good, but that comes with a consistent lineup game in and game out.
SSFC: John Brooks has finally taken the step to becoming a USMNT star during the Copa America. What defender past or present does he remind you of?
Alexi: He’s got some of the Eddie Pope type of attributes. I don’t think I’d parallel him with anyone out there. I will caution that we’ve been through this before with say an Oguchi Onyewu, who came on and was going to be the most important defender. Through injuries and different things that can come and go really quickly.
I love the fact that he’s playing well and is a better player than he was a year ago. To have him playing with such confidence consistently is a good thing. An understanding and a relationship with Geoff Cameron next to him, any center back will tell you the more often you can play with a guy next to you the better off you’re going to be.
SSFC: Have you noticed a particular reason for the team's struggles to defend set pieces?
Alexi: I wish I could tell you because that for many years was the least of our worries, is set pieces. It’s all mental it’s not a physical thing. It’s got to be cut out because that’s one of the few things traditionally we haven’t had a problem with and now we seem to be struggling with. I don’t worry too much about it, honestly. Because it’s not a question of what the problem was, the problem was players not marking their men. So that can be fixed very quickly and easily by marking your man. The team can fix those.
SSFC: As of now, the USMNT will be missing three important players in the semifinals. How will that change the gameplan and who would you like to see get a chance in the lineup?
Alexi: There are several different ways you could go. I’ve learned long ago not to try and predict what Jurgen Klinsmann is going to do with the lineup. Do you continue on with Besler in the back? Or do you go back to that four was so good previously and go back with that consistency with Yedlin back on the right and Fabian Johnson on the left? Or do you put Besler in the back and Johnson in the midfield?
I’d actually like to see them go back to the traditional back four you started with. Then in the midfield you put in a Kyle Beckerman who is as close as a like-for-like as you’re going to get with Jermaine Jones. Although they do things differently at times, but some of the composure and and decisions that Beckerman makes could be beneficial in this game.
And then I would put Nagbe in with Zusi and have that midfield four. Because Nagbe allows you to keep some of that possession and there’s a tendency when you play against big teams to concede possession. I think the U.S. needs to fight tooth and nail at all costs to keep possession. The more possession they can get the better it’s going to be for them.
Up top I’d put Zardes and Dempsey. The loss of Wood is difficult because of the work he did. The consistent work and tracking down balls. I believe Jurgen Klinsmann has been gifted a team with more quality and more depth than any team in the past. Now it’s time to for those guys to step up.
SSFC: The million dollar question. How do the USA stop Messi?
Alexi: Number one, you have to recognize that yes, you have to know where he is at all times. But if you just fixate on him, what makes him great is that he has the ability and the knowledge of when to get rid of the ball. It’s not like he’s surrounded by a bunch of no names. He has 10 other players around him that are world-class. So, if you fixate on him, he’ll just pass the ball and you’re in trouble all over again. But you have to worry about him, and the times when you can double him, you do double him.
The other thing you have to do is not gift anything. In the Venezuela game we saw the other day, they gifted them a goal. If Lionel Messi or Argentina are going to score on you let it be something special. Let it be something like that is unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. Don’t have it be because of a simple mistake that you’ve made that isn’t a reflection on the quality you’re playing against but a mistake that anyone would finish.