He is finally leaving – although there was a time when it seemed as though David Beckham would never fully arrive in the United States.
After the fanfare of his signing from Real Madrid, the player’s tenure in Los Angeles has turned out to be a story of two acts: the first, an undignified sequence of repeated false starts, injuries, boardroom coups, controversial loans and more injuries; the second, a more muted but truly effective stint of team play that has now seen the LA Galaxy play in three of the last four Major League Soccer Cup finals and winning back-to-back titles in Beckham’s last competitive game for them.
In putting those acts in that order, Beckham will leave Galaxy on a high – respected by his teammates, the coach, Bruce Arena, and the overwhelming majority of Los Angeles fans, as a model professional whose diminishing powers have still contributed significantly to their success, rather than the superstar whose arrival threatened to turn his club, if not the league, upside down.
“He’s been probably more valuable to the league than to the LA Galaxy,” said Arena. And although there is truth in that – his former club president, Alexi Lalas, and Major League Soccer Players’ Union chief Bob Foose were both emphatic about the “worldwide credibility” the player’s arrival brought to the league – and although it is true that the economic boon of his presence went way beyond the surge in shirt sales at Galaxy, there is a certain quiet relief among many people attached to Major League Soccer that, ultimately, at least part of Beckham’s legacy here will be a sporting one.
Beckham agreed to leave Real Madrid for Galaxy and Major League Soccer in January 2007, although he would not be unveiled until six months later at the conclusion of the Spanish season. Major League Soccer operates as a single entity in which clubs are essentially business partners, therefore, although the ripples of Beckham’s arrival would have been felt in any league, the implications on and off the field here were immediately apparent.
It is an approach built on the belief that collective ownership and stringent salary caps would somehow see the league safely through any temptation to boom and bust, the post-Pele fate of its predecessor, the North American Soccer League. So how could they handle Beckham, the sport’s biggest brand? Since 2005, prior to the Englishman’s arrival, Tim Leiweke, the chief executive of electrical equipment company AEG – Galaxy’s owners – had lobbied his fellow owners to accept what became known as the “Beckham rule” – an exception to the salary cap to allow clubs to sign a designated player.
The Beckham effect
The partners had originally rejected this as anathema to their goal of slow growth, but a new TV deal and large investments in the league by Adidas and Red Bull brought the doubters around. With the rule in place a beaming Leiweke promised on the day of the midfielder’s signing that “David Beckham will have a greater effect on soccer in America than any athlete has ever had on a sport globally”.
It seemed, and of course turned out to be, an impossible assertion. The expectations were especially outlandish within the competitive structure of Major League Soccer and its forced parity.
Lalas claimed that the balance was an extra level of pressure on Beckham, who had been used to winning titles: “The parity makes Major League Soccer the most competitive league in the world.
It may not be the most entertaining or the most high-profile, but because of the manufactured parity – for a guy like David, who’s played for Manchester United and Real Madrid – it’s a very different type of experience.”
Even getting to the pitch, let alone competing there, proved something of a challenge early on for Beckham. He was injured on his arrival and a scheduled ESPN live broadcast of his debut against Chelsea ended up consisting largely of cutaway shots to a pensive-looking Beckham on the bench.
There were moments, though, when the spectacle of Beckham was in full effect. When he and Galaxy played New York for the first time at Giants Stadium, 66 237 people showed up.
Kyle Martino, an original teammate of Beckham’s and now an NBC colour commentator, recalled: “During the game I looked over at David taking a corner, and I’d grown up watching Manchester United, so that alone … but then for the first time in my career I stopped and did a full 360 to take in 66 000 people inside Giants Stadium. I’d grown up watching games at this stadium. This was sacred ground for me as much as Old Trafford might be for Man United fans. It was just a really cool moment.”
Cool VS success
The problem initially was that the “really cool” moments were not adding up to success on the field. At the time of Beckham’s arrival, Galaxy head coach was Frank Yallop.
His Los Angeles side were not gelling before the midfielder joined and his introduction seemed to intimidate rather than to inspire. “Yeah, it was difficult,” said Yallop. “He came in and the sort of ‘half-start’ he had was difficult, but I don’t think anyone was ready for him. The team wasn’t, I don’t think I was and I don’t think the league was quite ready for the enormity of what David was going to bring to Major League Soccer – and it showed on the field.”
Beckham’s infamous off-season loan to Milan in early 2009 caused a definitive crisis when he tried to force an extension. This time the Englishman had overplayed his hand with his American hosts and AEG pushed back, insisting that the player return for spring training. With a Major League Soccer-imposed deadline to return nearing, Beckham was forced to dip into his own pocket to extend the loan and on his eventual comeback in mid-season found himself faced by angry crowds at the Home Depot Centre.
The self-styled Los Angeles Riot Squad supporters group jeered the player for his “betrayal” and the nadir was Beckham almost coming to blows with a fan he had beckoned on to the field.
Yet just when all seemed lost and just as he had a decade earlier after his red card against Argentina in the 1998 World Cup, Beckham dealt with his tormentors by throwing himself into his work: “I just did what I always do – talk on the field.” In Arena, Beckham now had one of the few coaches in the US with a strong enough personality to manage him.
During Beckham’s absence in Milan, the ex-US national team coach had been quietly knitting together a team that would go on to reach the 2009 Major League Soccer Cup final.
They lost on penalties, but for the first time in his stay in the league Beckham would not just be a spectacle to sell tickets and shirts, but a member of a successful team. Last year Beckham was named in the Major League Soccer Best XI as Galaxy enacted a procession towards the league’s Cup.
His passing remained as crisp as ever, although he was now routinely dropping deeper to find room for those passes and in doing so creating space for his teammates.
Had Beckham left the league in 2009, the reaction of most people around Major League Soccer might have been one of secret relief that the circus had left town.
But seeing first-hand his genuine interactions with teammates suggests that, at some point during his time in Los Angeles, Beckham has remembered a lesson Sir Alex Ferguson taught him the hard way: no player is bigger than the team. – © Guardian News & Media 2012