A Man of Many Talents
If you were picking one person to write a classic American soccer song, you could do worse than Alexi Lalas. He played at the top level; he's been an ambassador for the sport in the U.S., and he's a musician--an actual one, not just an athlete who got a record deal. He may still have a classic soccer song in him. But for now, what he's given us instead is 1994's "Kickin' Balls."
There are a lot of good things to say about Alexi Lalas. As a player; as a commentator; and, unusually for a professional athlete, as a musician. So let's get them out of the way before we get to "Kickin' Balls."
As a player, Lalas was a trailblazer. He always got a lot of press attention on the United States national team, in part for his hair, his goatee, and his larger-than-life personality. But he earned his ninety-six USA caps (14th on the all-time list) with hard work and raw talent. Lalas broke new ground for American players, appearing with the Arsenal reserves and becoming the first American to appear in Serie A in the modern era. We've already looked at a song about the U.S.'s victory over Brazil in the 1998 Gold Cup, and while Kasey Keller got the glory (and the song) for the 1-0 victory, Lalas laid down in front of Romario to block a wide-open Romario shot in the first half (Keller making another phenomenal save on the rebound) and started the play that led to Preki's goal.
Lalas was a second-team all-star at the 1994 World Cup, where he played every minute of every game for the USA. He became a media favorite, and in 1996 he gave up his European career to sign with Major League Soccer, where he played until he retired (then unretired, then retired again). After his playing career, he tried his hand at front office work, including a notorious stint as David Beckham's first general manager at the Galaxy. He's since moved from the front office into the broadcast studio, where he's sometimes controversial, but always passionate and never boring.
All the time, Lalas has had another career as a musician. Not in the "famous athlete gets a record deal" way; a real working musician, songwriter, guitarist, and singer, with fans who didn't (and some who still don't) know a thing about soccer. In fact, for a while, Lalas may have been better known in the U.S. for his music, especially considering how low-profile American soccer was in the early 1990s.
In his recent albums, Lalas has settled into a comfortable 90's pop-rock style, something like the Spin Doctors or the Gin Blossoms with a guitar-rock edge. But in 1994, he was still looking for his voice. As a result, 1994's "Woodland" sounds a little bit like a cover band set, with every song a slightly different style, from folky jangle to not-quite-grunge to a Journey-style power ballad ("Wait Up For Me") where Lalas channels his inner Steve Perry on the vocal. Other songs are reminiscent of Jeff Buckley, or Aerosmith, or sometimes Hootie and the Blowfish, who Lalas and his band the Gypsies would open for on a 1998 tour.
If I had to pick a '90s precursor for "Kickin' Balls," it might be The Rembrandts, the poppy easy-listening band who wrote the theme song for the show "Friends." It has a little more fuzz on the guitars, but it has the same simple, poppy, upbeat sound, as though Lalas was trying a little too hard to be radio-friendly. Still, the band finds a good, fast groove, and the tune is simple but catchy.
The real problem with "Kickin' Balls" is the lyric. Over the course of the year, we've seen profound songs that use soccer to talk about the human condition, like The Hitchers' excellent "Strachan" or Kirsty MacColl's "England 2 Columbia 0". We've seen songs about cllubs and national teams that often had little more to say than, "My team's better than your team." But few songs say as little as "Kickin' Balls," which is really about "words that rhyme with 'balls.'" Here's the first chorus:
'Cause it's not against the law,
Bring anyone at all,
We're all just kickin' balls!
So if your momma calls,
Tell her what you saw,
We'll all be kickin' balls!
Not every good song needs to be profound, and great ones can even be nonsense. But there's a fine line between nonsense and rhyming-dictionary doggerel, and Lalas crosses it early and often in "Kickin' Balls." It might have to do with inspiration; many mediocre anthems are written because a band thinks a World Cup song might be good for their careers, rather than because they have anything profound to say about the sport. Lalas' tune was used in the 1995 Disney kiddie-soccer movie "The Big Green," and although it doesn't seem to have been written specifically for it, it sounds like it might as well have been.
So what's the moral? When it comes to soccer songs, sometimes a couple of comedians, or a total unknown, can write a classic, while great bands (like New Order or the Pogues) and talented players (like Paul Gascoigne and Jay DeMerit) can put out duds. Being a good musician or loving the sport are only part of the equation.
Or, as another former player turned commentator once put it, "It's a funny old game."