Alexi Lalas retired for love. But retirements are rarely idyllic storybook endings, much less the transitions to life after soccer.
"As everyone knows, a footballer's career is short. At roughly 35 years of age, not even halfway through his life, a player can be faced with dropping out of the game he has played all his life, and this inevitably leaves a huge gap to fill," Michael Owen wrote in an Oct. 4 blog on his website. "This crossroads, I believe, is the most testing in a footballer's life."
Picking the right moment to step away is tricky. A deteriorating body provides the impetus for many. "Everybody you talk to, a sports person who retires, one of the main things that they always say is, 'I can't do another preseason,'" Marcus Hahnemann told Goal.com. "Because the preseasons are so hard and your body takes that much longer to recover."
Others will compete, whatever the level, for as long as possible. "You're going to play anyways," Tony Sanneh told Goal.com in 2009. "The only difference is now you're getting paid for it." The factors that lead that type of player out of the professional game can sting.
In June 1997, a few days before his contract became guaranteed, Greg Lalas sat down with New England Revolution coach Thomas Rongen in a gym in Boston and said he was leaving the team. "There was no comment about why," Greg Lalas told Goal.com. But he had his reasons.
"I don't want to start to hate the game," he thought. "I don't want to blame the game for my frustrations about not being good enough to play at this level. So I'm going to quit so that I still love the game. I know so many ex-players who became really bitter about the game, because their career didn't go the way they think it should have."
Greg Lalas jumped before he was pushed. Few players have that foresight.
"I never did [retire]. That was the hardest part," Tony Meola told Goal.com. The New York Red Bulls waived him in 2006. "I went on Bruce Arena's terms and not on my own."
Burned by the rejection, Meola left the game in a huff. "I didn't watch an MLS game, and I didn't go to a game for three years," Meola said. "I just wanted nothing to do with it. I was so frustrated."
Alexi Lalas experienced both scenarios: deciding when to retire and being told to move on. Following the 1999 season with the Kansas City Wizards, at 29, the central defender decided to "step away."
"I came to the realization that I wasn't having fun and I wasn't going to be of any use to anybody at that particular moment," he said. "I'd burned it on both ends for a long time and milked it for all it was worth and it caught up to me."
Also, there was a girl. Alexi Lalas moved to Los Angeles to pursue her and spent a year traveling and doing odd TV gigs, even shaving his trademark goatee.
"When you decide to retire you have to almost convince yourself that it's the right thing to do, which means it's the right thing for your body," Hahnemann, who thought he retired earlier this year, said. "'Yeah, I'm getting older, maybe it's a good thing for me to retire now.' So you kind of convince yourself of that."
But sometimes the body isn't convinced, the passion not sated. Hahnemann signed with his hometown club, the Seattle Sounders, toward the end of the 2012 MLS season. After his first year away from the game, Alexi Lalas called up Sigi Schmid, then the coach of the LA Galaxy, and asked if he could come out to train for a little bit.
"I missed it, to be quite honest," Alexi Lalas said. "That's the simplest form."
At 30, Lalas could still perform, so Schmid acquired his rights from KC.
"It was actually the start of – from an MLS perspective – the most successful time in my career," Lalas said. He won the CONCACAF Champions' Cup, the U.S. Open Cup, the Supporters Shield and the MLS Cup in the next couple years with the Galaxy. And then, in 2003, he retired again.
"I went into a room – the way a lot of athletes do – and Sigi once again, ironically who had given me my chance then, said, 'Hey, it's not going to work,'" Lalas said.
The first day after Alexi Lalas retired the first time, he ran 12 miles on the treadmill. Hahnemann cracked open a beer. Greg Lalas flew back to his mother's house in Michigan and bought a 1979 BMW R100S. "It was blue and silver. It was gorgeous," he said. He drove to both coasts.
The first day is easy. It's figuring out how to fill all the other days that complicates issues.
"The last thing I want is to be told I'm no longer any use on the football field and then wonder what I'm going to do next," Michael Owen wrote. Owen, currently at Stoke City, has a variety of business ventures, including joint-owning race horses and a physiotherapy practice. He's probably set, financially, for life. Again, few players fall into that category.
"People are constantly talking about it," Alexi Lalas said. "So in a certain sense you'd think that athletes would be much more prepared and aware that it's coming, and yet invariably it hits you. It's never perfect. There are very very few players that get to ride off into the sunset. When it comes to American players, there are certainly very few that get to ride off into the sunset with enough money to go sit on a beach."
Alexi Lalas breaks it down to three different types of players. The first, the smallest group, "have it all mapped out … and it all works out the way that they want." The second are clever enough to have drawn up some rudimentary plans. "They've recognized that there will come a day when their income will not be from running around kicking a ball, and have set up things in their life to enable them to make the easiest possible transition." And, lastly, "there's some that have absolutely no clue. I don't judge them at all. I was in that boat at times too. As a player you don't really want to hear about a life without this game."
So Alexi Lalas tells any player who will listen to latch onto any opportunity that presents a jumping off point. In 2003, AEG offered Alexi Lalas a job as the general manager of the San Jose Earthquakes. He held on tight and rode that gig to positions with the New York/New Jersey Metrostars and then the Galaxy, where he helped bring David Beckham to MLS. In 2008, he joined ESPN as an analyst.
As evidenced by his firing in 2008, the transition to a second career wasn't always smooth. How could it be for soccer players, years or decades behind others in their new fields?
"When you have been praised and rewarded for something that you do for so long and that praise and reward is no longer there and you have to find other things, sometimes it takes a while to find those things that you are good at and you have a passion for," Alexi Lalas said. "It might be a situation where the things that you want to do aren't going to make you money."
In a sense, retired athletes need to find a second passion. They can still hang around the sport – Meola wants to coach; the Lalas brothers both cover soccer as journalists – but the approaches differ from actually playing.
"I'd by lying if I told you that it equals the adrenaline and the immediacy of what being a professional athlete affords you," Alexi Lalas said. "Your successes sometimes take a lot longer to manifest, and the rush and the adrenaline are just different."
Different doesn't necessarily mean worse. That girl Alexi Lalas pursued in 1999? She's now his wife. He bristled against referring to family as secondary to anything. Second careers aren't always second passions, either.
"For me, writing was always my first passion," Greg Lalas, now the chief editor of MLSsoccer.com, said. "That's the thing that some people don't consider, that there actually might be professional athletes out there whose first passion is not the sport they play."
Benoit Assou-Ekotto readily admits that, for him, soccer is merely a lucrative occupation. In 1997, Greg Lalas looked at his pay stub from Borders Books and decided to join the Worcester Wildfire in the lower leagues because he wanted to make more. He had a marketable skill. Why not exploit it?
"That was the only reason I did it," Greg Lalas said. "It didn't mean I like to lose or was willing to accept losing. I had passion to win, because I'm still a competitive guy. But it was just, you know, getting a pay check. I'm sure that pisses people off to hear it. It's the truth, though."
Besides transitioning careers, retired soccer players have to adjust their social habits. For years their friend groups were gangs of 20-odd 20-something males. Every day they trained together and ate together and traveled together. Suddenly, like moving out of college dorms, that social structure dissipates.
"Retirement is very lonely," Alexi Lalas said. "You spend – if you're lucky – decades living a type of lifestyle, relating to – in our case for the most part it's other men – in a certain way. Everything is affected, from your speech to how you dress to how you view the world. All is filtered through this locker room type of existence. And poof, it's gone."
They have to find new friends. They have to wear pants in public. They have to find something to do as a profession until they can retire from that, too.
"Everybody at some point goes through a retirement process," Alexi Lalas said. "But it's hard to relate the end of a lifetime of work and coming to the end, as opposed to just a period in your life. I did it twice and, even though one was by choice, it still was difficult. It was scary. It was lonely at times. But I also think that it kind of helps propel you into the rest of your life."