- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 22, 2003

SUWON, South Korea — The long hair and the goatee are gone but Alexi Lalas still stands out in a crowd.

Once the most recognizable American soccer player in the world, the Los Angeles Galaxy defender now takes a more conservative look and no longer passes for Gen. George A. Custer. However, the former World Cup star is still a great performer and had the fans roaring here Sunday night as he bowed, Korean-style, to the crowd before the Galaxy’s 4-1 loss to PSV Eindhoven in the Peace Cup.

After a stunning career with the U.S. team — he also was the first American to play in Italy’s Serie A — Lalas suddenly retired from soccer three years ago and said he wanted to focus on his music and band, Nectar Drop.

However, the game lured him back. He joined the Galaxy a year ago and has been a steady fixture on the backline.

“It was a accumulation of a number of things, not the least of which was I’d been burning it pretty hard on and off the field for many, many years,” said the former Rutgers star. “I was doing all the stuff I wanted to do and I wouldn’t change a thing, but it does catch up on you, and it caught up to me — physically, mentally, emotionally — and I knew I wouldn’t have been good to any team had I continued to play.”

The 33-year-old was a founding member of Major League Soccer in 1996 and started with the New England Revolution before moving to the New York/New Jersey MetroStars and ending up with the Kansas City Wizards in 1999. But he left it all for the band and touring; he also did some TV commentary for soccer.

“I needed to just see a whole different way of life and to see whether I really wanted to play the game,” said the Birmingham, Mich., native. “I saw things from a different vantage point and I came back a better soccer player and probably a better person.”

But the mystery behind his year-long absence from the sport has a simple explanation.

“As with most of these stories, there was a girl involved,” Lalas said. “Love is a very powerful thing and can make you do crazy things.”

Now that the Peace Cup is over for the Galaxy, who went 0-1-2, Lalas wants to get a break before the team faces the Columbus Crew at home on July 30.

“As much as I love these guys I don’t want to see them for a while,” Lalas said. “In this whole season there has been a lot of traveling and a lot of time together. Not getting the results we wanted has made it hard to put the negatives outside, so everything has been magnified. Having some time away from each other is very important. This next week is going to be wonderful and I won’t tell anyone where I’m going.”

The 2002 MLS champions have spent nearly four of the year’s first six months on the road playing a grueling schedule. In April the club played in Spain at the La Manga Cup, then traveled to Mexico for the CONCACAF Championship. The team had to play its first eight MLS games on the road before its new stadium in Carson, Calif., was completed on June 7. The rest will be welcomed.

Peace Cup final — In today’s championship game of the Peace Cup, Dutch champions PSV Eindhoven will play French champions Lyon at 65,000-seat World Cup Stadium. The winning team will take home $2 million and the runner-up will earn $500,000.

The organizers didn’t get the perfect championship game — Korean champs Songnam would be have been preferred over Lyon — but PSV will pull in the fans. The Dutch club is the most popular foreign team in Korea. The team is coached by former Korean team coach Guss Hiddink and has two Korean World Cup stars on its roster.

Make-up games — The eight-team Peace Cup gave the Galaxy an opportunity to make up for the cancellation of the 2001 FIFA World Club Championship in Spain. Los Angeles would have played Real Madrid, Ghana’s Hearts of Oak and Japan’s Jubilo Iwata. Apart from Real Madrid, the teams here — Dutch champs PSV Eindhoven, 1860 Munich and Uruguay’s powerhouse Nacional — have offered tougher competition than the defunct Club Championship.

“On and off the field [the Peace Cup] has been great,” Lalas said. “This is a part of the world a lot of the guys have not seen. Sometimes you get isolated and insulated in the world you play in and it’s important to understand the impact of the game on the world. As integrated as we are in the U.S. it’s important to see how the game is played in other parts of the world and not lose track of that. Here in Korea you don’t at first assume how powerful the game is. But the fans are very knowledgeable, certainly enthusiastic, and of course we have one of their heroes, Bo Myung Hong, on our team, so it’s been nice.”

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