He’s played in Serie A and MLS, he’s a former Olympian and World Cup veteran, he’s been an executive within MLS and he even has a music career. Now a personality and analyst for FOX Sports, Alexi Lalas was the perfect member of the media outside the Front Range to catch up with and chat the Colorado Rapids ahead of Thursday’s Thanksgiving Day match in the Western Conference Semifinals.
The Colorado Rapids won the West for the first time in club history. In what ways did the Rapids exceed your expectations in 2021?
This 2021 Rapids team has made many pay attention. It would be one thing if the team was simply competitive, but the level of play and success that led the team to ultimately finish atop of what I feel is the stronger conference, that’s not something I or anyone (other than maybe Robin and the team) thought would happen.
The Rapids will host the Portland Timbers in MLS’s first-ever Thanksgiving Day match. It’s obviously unique and special in that regard, but what excites you about this platform for this game?
At FOX, we are excited about the Thanksgiving MLS playoff game featuring the Rapids and Portland. I think it will be a great opportunity to expose a whole lot of people home for the holidays to MLS. I hope the Rapids put on a show for America on this special day. In a way, it’s an advertisement both for MLS and this Rapids team.
You played in the MLS Cup Playoffs during your career. The current format is win or go home which adds a level of drama all its own, but even before this setup, playoffs just feel different. What changes between the regular season and postseason? How do the games change?
Obviously, the pressure increases because of the incredibly small margin for error. You can’t afford to have a bad day, and if/when you do, it can tend to diminish all the work and success you’ve had in the regular season. The Rapids finished first in the West, but they did it flying relatively under the radar, something that they grew accustomed to. But now, all eyes are on this team on Thanksgiving Day, there’s no hiding. Now they have to justify their success by parleying it into post-season success. That’s what great MLS teams do.
The Colorado Rapids won the West by getting valuable minutes and performances from nearly every player on the roster at one point or another. How does that lineup flexibility and bevy of attacking options make them difficult to prepare for?
Robin is a smart man and coach. He understands how to coach and motivate relative to his circumstances. He recognized that the Rapids team was about the collective, as opposed to high-paid, high-profile, stars. His ability to change and be flexible in tactics and/or personnel makes it hard to game-plan against his team because you can’t just hedge your bets by shutting down 2-3 main players. In essence, he’s created a pure team where anyone and everyone contributes, and anyone and everyone competes.
Seemingly a mainstay in the playoffs, the Portland Timbers are back once again. If I said Sebastian Blanco is their best and most important player, I think you’d agree, but if I’m wrong, please correct me. If I’m right, who are the next two or three most important players and why?
Blanco is rightfully the focus and we already saw his impact in their first playoff game. But Asprilla is having a great year and the Chara brothers are a potent tandem. Oh, and they still have Diego Valeri waiting in the wings coming off the bench.
One of the keys to the Rapids success for the last few years has been efficiency on set pieces. The team has found a formula to turn them into a repeatable and sustainable fountain for goals. They figure to play a factor in any Rapids playoff run. What makes a set piece play successful and tough to defend?
A set piece is to soccer what water is to life. It is essential to survive, but it can kill you if don’t respect it. My love of set pieces is well known. I think Robin recognizes the opportunity that set pieces can provide for his team. It’s the closest the game of soccer gets to football, it’s the only time that the game stops and a specific movement is implemented from a controlled point. Set piece success is a combination or attitude, organization, and execution. It has warmed the cockles of my red-headed heart to see the Rapids value and set piece.
It’s a small sample size but the Rapids are 2-0-1 against the Timbers since Robin Fraser took over. How valuable is recent success against a club when it comes to confidence and playing them in the playoffs?
I put no value to the history of success. This is MLS, the parity in this league is unequaled relative to anywhere in the world. No one cares what you did before, and I think it’s dangerous to rely on or believe that head-to-head history will inform the playoffs when it comes to MLS.
If Thursday evening rolls around and people are saying “The Rapids did \\\\\\\\\\ and have defeated the Portland Timbers,” how do you fill in the blank?
Ground the Timbers down, neutralized the Timbers stars, got big performances from unlikely players, and continued to mine set pieces.