What does Beckham’s return mean for MLS and the Galaxy?

Former England captain David Beckham is due to return to Los Angeles Galaxy in July following a spell with AC Milan. Beckham’s move to LA from Real Madrid was seen as the end of his European career and an intermediate step between playing professional football and investing heavily in Major League Soccer.

However, his commitment to MLS was called into question at great length when he decided to embark upon a loan/timeshare deal in Italy with a view to securing a spot in England’s squad in World Cup 2010, a tournament they’re now just one win away from.

Beckham’s career has rarely been one which shunned the limelight. He scored for Manchester United on the opening days of the 1995/6 and 1996/7 Premier League seasons, the latter an audacious chip from the half way line which found its way over retreating Wimbledon goalkeeper Neil Sullivan. With that, the David Beckham circus began. He married a Spice Girl, kicked Diego Simeone, won the treble and a whole host of individual awards, scored Old Trafford’s most famous free kick and then joined Real for big money in 2003.

Fast forward to June 2009, and the boy from Leytonstone is preparing to return to California. He joined LA Galaxy in 2007 accompanied by as much hype and glamour as he could fit on his flight. MLS got a bit of a bounce but Beckham’s form on the field left a lot to be desired. In a team which already had its own superstar, Beckham struggled to make the kind of impact his wage packet demanded. As his England career began to revive itself, World Cup 2010 seemingly entered Beckham’s consciousness and he engineered a move to Europe in order to stay in view of the national team manager.

It appears to have worked for Beckham, and his excellent form in Milan suggests that Carlo Ancelotti would have been pleased with events too. But the mood is less sympathetic in the States, and Beckham’s return next month is set to present as much of a challenge as an opportunity.

Galaxy master the draw

At face value, the Galaxy are crying out for a player like Beckham. The team is on a solid unbeaten streak of ten league games, but are remarkably prone to drawing matches. In recent weeks Eddie Lewis, Edson Buddle and Alan Gordon have chipped in with goals to take the weight off Landon Donovan’s shoulders as LA’s form continues to improve. Donovan has scored six this term and contributed no fewer than four assists.

But if Galaxy’s problem has been turning draws into wins, Beckham might just be the man to help them start bagging maximum points. His crossing and passing are still undeniably world class, while his pinpoint accuracy from set pieces could make the difference. However, the Galaxy have improved over the last month and are starting at times to look like a force to be reckoned with. The vital next step is turning that influence into goals and they’re slowly getting there. So will Beckham turn them into MLS Cup contenders or rock a gradually steadying ship?

“Galaxy’s biggest challenge”

Despite Beckham’s return being another marketing opportunity off the field, it seems clear to me that the real benefits could come on it. Andrew Bucholtz of Sporting Madness told me that he thinks a lot of people underestimate the effect Beckham could have on the Galaxy’s play. “He doesn’t have the pace he did during his prime but, as he showed with Milan this year, he can still be a top flight player if used correctly. In my mind, that’s the biggest challenge facing the Galaxy. They have to find a way to maximize his strengths and minimize his weaknesses, and it will be more challenging than it was at Milan, as they don’t have the corresponding other talent to put around him.”

“In order for the Galaxy to be successful with Beckham, they can’t rely on him to do everything. I think they would be best served playing him on the wing and running their offence through the central midfield and strikers, but then frequently swinging the ball out to him and allowing him to utilize his magnificent crossing skills.”

In this way, Beckham could help drag the Galaxy up the table by benefiting other players. Donovan is more than capable of playing alongside the Englishman and shining in a dynamic team, and the likes of Buddle and Gordon – both capable of hitting the back of the net – would undoubtedly find themselves on the scoresheet more often than they do currently. It’s important to use Beckham as just one route to goal because the pressure, as Andrew rightly pointed out, will be on Beckham to create something with every touch in every game. He will find himself double-marked and may aid his team-mates most be earning them some extra space in which to operate.

“Too much negativity”

The trouble is that it isn’t just a case of assessing Beckham’s qualities and discussing where they slot into the team. Other commentators are more concerned than Andrew about the Goldenballs Circus. When Beckham returns to Los Angeles, he will bring with him a large entourage of sponsors, marketing men and desperate journalists. This can affect the player, the league and his colleagues, and will surely fire up his opponents.

The Midnight Ride‘s Hank Alexandre believes that there is just too much baggage surrounding the former Manchester United man, and that his past performances for Galaxy suggest that he probably isn’t what they need: “I honestly think his return is going to be more of a hindrance than anything else. Too much negativity surrounds the whole debacle of his loan move to Milan. Aside from that, is he really going to add that extra spark the Galaxy are looking for? Based on past performances with the Galaxy, history says no.”

While Andrew, Hank and myself are of the opinion that there are costs and benefits heading the way of LA Galaxy and Major League Soccer in July, it should be noted that not everybody will welcome him with open arms. Many Los Angeles Galaxy supporters were deeply irritated by Beckham’s conduct at the time of his move to Milan. It will be fascinating to see how those supporters react to him when he next pulls on the Galaxy’s colours, presumably against New York Red Bulls in the middle of next month.

Zach Woosley (Ginge Talks The Footy) is a Major League Soccer realist with nothing but the interests of the league at heart, and is not a Goldenballs fan. “For the Galaxy, Beckham’s return can’t really hurt on the financial side. Plenty of people will come to see him and mindlessly buy jerseys, and then be confused when hardcore fans boo him relentlessly. On the field, it could help the team with getting some more goals, but it seems more likely to cause locker room room problems as the players will view Beckham as a temporary, over-hyped player who is just there because he has to be.”

“Overall his impact on Major League Soccer has been completely destroyed by his obvious distaste for being here.”

If commissioner Don Garber is serious about growing MLS by attracting America’s existing football fans – the viewers and customers of Europe’s top leagues – rather than converting those who’ve shown no previous interest, the league doesn’t need people “mindlessly” following the shiny new superstar from Europe. It would be better served converting fans by convincing the knowledgeable that MLS is a great league in its own right.

Mixed feelings

Somewhere in the middle, there are supporters with crossed fingers – hoping that their hopes are met and their fears dashed. Jason Davis at Match Fit USA is one such observer: “There’s certainly resentment for the way he took advantage of the Galaxy and the system and forced his way to Milan without any real regard for how that might affect Major League Soccer, the LA Galaxy, or the league’s efforts to make a mark on the American sports scene. On the other hand, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t just a little excited about him coming back, if only because it will once again draw some attention to the sport here that it might not otherwise receive.”

Jason thinks MLS could use Beckham’s return to its advantage, explaining that he is “all for the league squeezing everything it can out of Beckham, especially if doing so means being able to avoid leaning on one player the way it has on him sooner than it might otherwise.”

For my money, Beckham’s final run in Los Angeles will be a damp squib all round. I don’t anticipate explosive scenes of discontent, nor do I predict a Beckham-inspired turnaround in the Galaxy’s season. He is likely to spark off one or two special moments and his passing will be a joy to watch. But his commitment to MLS – at least as a player – has to be questioned, and if Galaxy don’t get the best from him then he’ll make little difference. Were I a Galaxy supporter, I’d be praying that Beckham’s desire to stay in Fabio Capello’s plans seeps into his domestic form.

Chris Nee writes at twofootedtackle and co-hosts The twofootedtackle Football Podcast.

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  1. AB 12 June, 2009
  2. James 12 June, 2009
  3. Bella 12 June, 2009
  4. tm 13 June, 2009