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LALAS PLAYS IN ITALY'S REKNOWNED LEAGUE

An American made it to the most reknowned soccer league in the world Sunday, even if it was in a 5-0 loss.

Alexi Lalas, a 24-year-old defender from Detroit, became the first U.S.-born player in the Italian League as Padova lost to Sampdoria of Genoa in its season opener."For the first time in my life they actually respect me for the job," Lalas said. "There is an incredible respect and passion for the game, and this is heaven, this is paradise."

Lalas, called the "American Buffalo" by the Italian media for his supposed resemblance to Gen. George Armstrong Custer, gained international notice for his play during the World Cup.

Going in, many thought he was just an interesting character with his fiery red hair and goatee, and for his guitar playing. But his steady defense drew the attention of Padova, which returned to the first division for the first time in 32 years. The club signed him for a $250,000 transfer fee.

"We simply lack experience, and at this level experience is everything," Lalas said. "We must learn from each game. We can and must improve."

Lalas, who has five goals in 50 international appearances for the United States, was good in man-to-man defensive play but loooked uncertain when Padova switched to a zone.

"When you play great players, and you leave them space, you are dead," Lalas said. "Unfortunately you can lose very badly while you learn."

Lalas, who plays guitar and sings in a rock group called "The Gypsies," didn't plan on singing Sunday night.

"If I do," he said, "it's the blues."