Even Alexi Lalas, the former U.S. men’s national team standout from the 1994 World Cup who has covered six other World Cups as an analyst, doesn’t quite know what next week’s unprecedented World Cup in Qatar will be like.
“The ‘Brigadoon’-ish aspect of this World Cup is fascinating,” said Lalas, referring to the Broadway musical and film about a strange town in the Scottish Highlands that appears for only one day every 100 years. Most of the stadiums and much of the event’s infrastructure in Qatar, the smallest nation to ever host a FIFA World Cup, had to be built quickly from scratch, leading to allegations of widespread human rights abuses of the tournament’s migrant workers.
Lalas described the setup in Qatar as “the ultimate bubble,” in which all eight stadiums are within an hour’s drive of each other and some of the more than 1.2 million soccer fans expected to descend upon the host nation will live almost literally on top of each other in fan villages assembled in the desert.
“It could be this wonderful experience, à la Woodstock,” Lalas said, “or it could be a Fyre Festival.”
Either way, the event likely won’t be easy to forget.
“I lived the power of what a World Cup can do to an individual, and it changed my life forever,” said Lalas, a member of the U.S. men’s team in both the 1994 and 1998 World Cups. The 52-year-old will work his seventh straight tournament in the studio this year, serving as lead analyst for Fox Sports alongside host Rob Stone and other analysts like U.S national team stars Clint Dempsey and Carli Lloyd, both making their debuts as Cup analysts.
Lalas sat down with Morning Consult to discuss how he prepares for the monthlong tournament, his team favorites and dark horse candidates, recollections of playing in the ‘94 World Cup and expectations for this year’s squad, among other topics. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What are your general thoughts and feelings heading into Qatar?
Whether you're going there or you're watching it from afar, this is unlike anything that we’ve ever seen. With that is certainly going to come ups and downs and hiccups at different times, but ultimately what we're looking at is a World Cup at a time where it has never been, with some of the challenges that are rightfully being talked about right now, including the very short runway up to it for players in a place where it’s never been.
This is also all in one city. The “Brigadoon”-ish aspect of this World Cup is fascinating. It is the ultimate bubble. It could be this wonderful experience à la Woodstock, or it could be a Fyre Festival. I mean, let’s be honest, we don’t know what it’s going to ultimately be. Everybody’s going to be on top of each other. You can get to multiple games a day. All of the stadiums are within 45 minutes. There's no traveling when it comes to both players and fans.
What it means is those that are able to adapt and be flexible are the ones who are ultimately not just going to succeed on the field from a competitive standpoint but even off the field, those are the ones who are going to have the most positive experience.
What do you recall about playing in the 1994 FIFA World Cup?
I do remember this incredible feeling of elation, of opportunity. Whether or not I was going to take a hold of that opportunity remained to be seen. It comes down to pride — the incredible honor and privilege of representing your country in that moment, putting that shirt on, walking out on the field, putting your hand over your heart, singing that anthem and knowing that there was a country watching and behind you. That is invaluable. That is lasting. It doesn’t matter how much money you make, it doesn’t matter how famous you are, it doesn’t matter how much you have won from a club perspective.
How do you prepare for the World Cup as a soccer analyst for Fox Sports?
I wish you could see my grotto here. There’s just papers everywhere. I have notebooks just filled with stuff. You know in those shows where they’re chasing the serial killer, and they have crap all over the wall? It’s a lot like that. You become obsessed and immersed in this world. I love it.
I look at it more like the iceberg theory. Ultimately, what people see on-air is a very small portion of all the work that has been done. Without that foundation, the good stuff that you see above the water isn’t as good. Much of the stuff will end up on the cutting room floor, but the cream will rise to the top and that’s going to be what you see.
The first week is always the most difficult for covering the World Cup. Everybody gets in there, and strange stuff happens, and the soccer gods have a wicked, cruel and unusual sense of humor at times. You have to be able to bob and weave. Once that gets done, then you have context, but until that, you’re relying on the fact that this is your job and this is the work. It is a labor of love, but it is still a labor, and I love doing it. I love all of the hours and hours and hours that I sit around, and then you have to trust that when that red light turns on you are able to distill it to its essence because we don’t have a lot of time.
Who are your favorites to win the World Cup?
The safe money is on Brazil as No. 1 and maybe 1A would be Argentina. Brazil is playing really, really well. In a strange way, losing Copa America last year may help fuel an additional fire to come back and win the big one, especially with Argentina right now having checked the box of winning a major, if you will, and [Lionel] Messi playing as good as we have seen him play in the twilight of his career. We’re seeing an incredibly balanced, drama-free Argentina, which is something new. Argentina doesn’t always defer to Messi and give him the ball to let him do what he does. Yes, there are moments of magic, but it’s much more by committee.
France is the defending champions, but history is not kind to defending champions. Talk about drama — at some point they are going to implode. You never know how that works, although they have just restocked even with some injuries that they have, so we’ll see if they can buck that trend, both from imploding and doing well as a defending champion.
Who are your World Cup dark horses?
A lot of people talk about Denmark. That would be a big dark horse, even given their success in the recent Euros. I really like this Netherlands team, to be quite honest. I know they’ve been bridesmaids before, and it’s strange to have seen Netherlands as a dark horse, but it has to be within reason, right? I look at this Netherlands team — they have some great players. Maybe we’re beginning to see the start of a — we throw this phrase around a lot — “golden generation,” so maybe this is also one for 2026, but they got a really nice pathway being pulled into Group A there to go far. I see them as a really solid pick. It’s not safe money, but it’s going to win you some money, and it’s not a complete outlier where you’re just shooting for the moon when it comes to betting.
What are your expectations for the U.S. men’s national team, who are returning to their first World Cup since 2014 after failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia?
It’s going to be really interesting to see how people react to this team because I sense and maybe I fear that there is this emerging tendency here to let them off the hook because they are so young. I actually think the opposite. This is a group that has been given everything from an early age. They have taken pathways that have never existed before. For example, for me to play in Europe, I had to star in a World Cup. We have players now that don’t even play a single game in MLS and are getting picked off and given opportunities here. I don’t begrudge them at all. It actually warms the cockles of my redheaded heart to see that. This is progress. This is what I want.
But with all of these new opportunities, resources and just incredible assets that they have at their disposal comes higher expectations. We should expect this U.S. team to get out of this group. This U.S. team, I think, is better than Wales, and it’s better than Iran. You take your chances against England, and certainly we have had a history of success. We will go in there with a belief that anything can happen, but it’s still an elite team in England. Does it mean we can’t lose to Iran or Wales? Nope.
It would be a failure not to get out of the group, and it should be framed as such because our expectations, even without qualifying [in 2018], which I do think was an anomaly and an aberration there, should be reflective of how far we have come.
MLS still lags behind the Big Four sports leagues in popularity. What can the league do to become a bigger part of the national consciousness?
Look, if I had the answer to that I'd be a rich, rich man because that is an evergreen type of question, and I don’t think there’s a simple “do one thing.” The migration that happened to England was due to the European community opening up, the Bosman ruling. All of these players didn’t go to England because of the weather and the food, OK?
They went there because of the money and some really strategic and smart marketing on the English Premier League’s part, both in terms of how they marketed the league both domestically and internationally, and the influx of some very, very rich people and entities, which made it a must-see destination. That same type of migration can happen someplace else. It’s going to be hard to wrestle it out of the hands of England at this point.
However, the advantage that North America has — particularly the United States — is people want to go there. They want to live there. If you can afford them the lifestyle, obviously the paycheck, all of the things that come with that and they don’t lose any credibility — I’m talking about the players — then not only does it change the perception of players but also the internal perception changes.
If you're told constantly that England is the best league, that's what you want. You have to change that narrative. A lot of that comes with spending more money and doing as many things as you possibly can to be relevant. It's a very different type of landscape with our history compared with the foothold that so many other leagues have, some of which have a 100-year head start.
The reality is this is a slog. Sometimes we kick ourselves for what we haven’t done, but we also have to pat ourselves on the back for how far we’ve come in a relatively short period of time when it comes to Major League Soccer.
You put it up against any league or any sport out there in terms of the evolution and the progress that it’s made, it has been very, very fast. It doesn't mean that there aren’t problems, it doesn't mean that you stop now, but it’s been pretty impressive. If you extrapolate that out for the next 27 years and where it will be, good times are ahead.