Why David Beckham will be good for Major League Soccer

Why David Beckham will be good for Major League Soccer


David Beckham is back, and fans of Major League Soccer are preparing for their next ride on the Goldenballs Rollercoaster. To spice up the moment, a book hit the shelves on Tuesday which has ignited interest in his return and will go down in US soccer history as a must-read.

The Beckham Experiment, by Sports Illustrated senior writer Grant Wahl, got another boost from the USA’s Confederations Cup campaign in which Beckham’s colleague Landon Donovan played himself not only into the affections of football observers worldwide, but back into those of the American fans who feel they’ve never seen the best from a man who should’ve been a superstar.

The Beckham Experiment superbly documents the tense relationships sparked by Beckham’s arrival, between the former England captain and Donovan, and between Donovan and Los Angeles Galaxy front office – in particular Alexi Lalas. Times have changed in Los Angeles since 2007. The inimitable Lalas has moved on to a high-profile post with MLS, and Frank Yallop is back in San Jose, taking the reins of the expansion franchise which rose from the ashes of the Earthquakes. Ruud Gullit since appointed and departed, Bruce Arena is the man now facing the Beckham challenge, brought into sharp focus when stinging comments made by Donovan in Wahl’s book hit the news.

“All that we care about is that he is committed to us,” said Donovan. “As time has gone on, that has not been the case on the field or off the field.” Rift healed – in public, at least – the Galaxy must take its collective mind off the comments and the rest of the controversies detailed in Grant Wahl’s book: Simon Fuller, 19 Entertainment and its relationship with AEG, the cunning use of Beckham’s friend Terry Byrne and the ludicrous way in which David Beckham – a supremely talented footballer whose crossover appeal led to him sharing a representative with the Spice Girls – has become a good guy letting bad guys (for football at least) make him money.

Far from perfect: Galaxy move turns bad

landy-and-becksBeckham joined Los Angeles Galaxy from Real Madrid in a move which surprised many but had in fact been years in the making. It was made possible by the businessmen behind Brand Beckham and the non-football interests of AEG, the owners of the Galaxy. An entertainment empire with venues all over the world, and a superagency headed up by the man behind Amerian Idol – in hindsight, it was just a matter of time. The location of Beckham’s LA soccer academy helped smooth the deal, one would imagine.

With rules changed to enable the Galaxy to circumvent the salary cap, the next problem was that the club already had a superstar. Landon Donovan was (and remains) a leading light in US football, and according to Wahl is a man of great sensitivity, not least to perceived disrespect. So when Beckham’s handlers, apparently using Beckham’s personal manager Terry Byrne to avoid getting the player’s fingerprints on any offending requests, made sure Donovan had no choice but to offer Beckham the captaincy, it confirmed Donovan’s fears that the pair wouldn’t see eye to eye.

Of course, football is a tough world but it is also uniquely forgiving. When it comes to the crunch, it doesn’t matter who owns a club, who runs it, who plays for it or what they’ve done – results are all that matter. But the middle of Galaxy’s 2007 season was far from stellar and the focus was inevitably thrown on Beckham, particularly when he finally succumbed to his ankle injury and the team went on a winning streak which almost resulted in a miraculous playoff qualification.

beckham-galaxyThat ankle injury was the story of Beckham’s MLS introduction, highlighting the manner in which the league’s supposed prize asset was pushed to the physical limit on the whim of desperate marketing men. His injury punctuated a stuttering start to life in California and Beckham couldn’t get going.

Despite this, Beckham had fought his way back into the England squad and seemingly convinced himself that he still had the ability to play at international level. Had he moved to MLS too soon? He’d never admit that himself, but what soon became clear was that Beckham wanted to play in front of the England management as often as possible. That meant playing in Europe, and to a FIFA-mandated schedule, and he was willing to play year-round for the rest of his career to earn selection for England’s 2010 World Cup squad. In forcing a loan move to AC Milan, Beckham showed both an admirable passion for the game and scant regard for MLS. In The Beckham Experiment, Donovan voiced the concerns of a football nation slighted.

Right league, wrong time, wrong club

beckham-englandDavid Beckham and LA Galaxy looked every inch the Hollywood partnership, but in terms of Beckham’s career and the progress of MLS it was arguably the wrong club. Of course, Galaxy was the only franchise with the ability to sign Beckham but for debate’s sake let’s consider that a stronger footballing side without the A-List distractions of Beverley Hills just might have made better use of the situation. Major League Soccer needed Beckham in a winning team, not the awful Galaxy roster he supplemented in 2007 and 2008. Despite 19 Entertainment’s shadow takeover of the Galaxy, David Beckham is not the franchise.

Fine player though he is, David Beckham is not a one-man winning machine.

There are complicating factors which make it impossible to even consider Beckham signing elsewhere in MLS. 19 and AEG have a relationship which extends far beyond football and Beckham’s soccer academy is located in such a way which almost gave Galaxy “first dibs” on his signature in any case. And, of course, Major League Soccer has a salary cap. Few clubs would have fought so tirelessly for rule changes to enable Beckham’s transfer, but for Phil Anschutz, Tim Leiweke and AEG, the benefits off the pitch sweetened the deal.

To make matters worse, Beckham took the plunge and headed for LA a couple of years too early. Unceremoniously frozen out of the England set-up by Steve McClaren in order to make a political point, Beckham seemingly suffered a crisis of confidence and sensed that 2007 was the year to pack his bags in Europe and begin Project America, tying in a successful twilight playing career in MLS, soccer academies bearing his name and, crucially, the long-rumoured hushed agreement that he can secure the ownership of an expansion franchise for a fixed fee when his career is over.

beckham-dubaiCritics doubt his dedication to MLS but I disagree. I think his intentions are good, as I will discuss later.

But having broken back into the England side, Beckham realised he still had another achievement for which to aim: World Cup 2010 in South Africa. In his mind, that meant playing in Europe (a suggestion echoed this week by England coach Fabio Capello). In moving to LA so early, Beckham feared he’d sabotaged his unexpected international swansong. He secured a loan move to AC Milan – lubricating the deal with dollar bills from his own pocket – and his return this week will be intriguing as a result.

In the eyes of the fans, David Beckham is no longer the golden boy of Major League Soccer. But, despite the questionable nature and worrying levels of influence of the people around him, I believe the player himself is well-intentioned, if a little desperate to reach the World Cup at all costs.

The long term

beckham-world-cupCall it intuition, optimism or blind faith, but having followed Beckham’s career closely from his Manchester United debut through the dark days of summer 1998, glory of 1999 and redemption in 2002, I believe David Beckham has the best interests of Major League Soccer and football in the United States at heart.

He is one of football’s good souls, a trustworthy and clean-living ultra-professional whose primary focus despite countless side projects remains success on the football pitch. He is fiercely competitive and driven like few others. Make no mistake, Beckham will play in South Africa next summer or keel over trying. That is the passion American football fans should see when wondering if he’ll be good for the game in the long term.

Beckham is a successful man, and if he’s made MLS his retirement project then there’s no reason he wouldn’t pass the ownership test with flying colours.

The question on everybody’s lips when Beckham purchases a franchise in MLS – in New York or elsewhere – will be this: exactly how much power does Beckham have over his own destiny? Or rather, the minutae of his own destiny. By effectively ousting Lalas from power during Beckham’s first stay with the Galaxy, 19 Entertainment demonstrated the kind of cunning and influence which could either help a new franchise boost Major League Soccer’s maturity or force it into the obscurity of a throwback NASL franchise in a modern, sensible league. The nous and backing of 19 would be hugely beneficial to call upon provided Beckham is truly in the driving seat. Perhaps, in retirement, he’ll be able to take that step.

But the biggest positive going for Beckham in his (hopefully) long-term MLS future is that he is a total football nut. In his own words, only family is more important. With that kind of dedication combined with a will to succeed and a track record of doing just that, anything is possible. Despite a difficult beginning, David Beckham will ultimately be good for Major League Soccer. Like the unholy marriage of interests between AEG and Simon Fuller’s 19 Entertainment, it’s just a matter of time.

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

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  1. Nice, and balanced ways that other reviews of both the book and the experiment itself have too often been off target.

    Also, in the end, I wouldn’t call your views blind faith at all. I call them the result of paying attention. In this short piece you provide a few more details about Beckham’s career, management choices, and the AEG/19 partnership than Grant Wahl’s 16 months of digging and 12 years of reporting produced.

    Whenever you see an athlete in this kind of situation with the skills, well known industry, and history of the affection of teammates, that Beckham has, you can invariably follow the money to the source(s) of something rotten.

  2. Hi Chris, Great article and insightful thoughts as always.
    I am in agreement with you, because from everything I have heard and read about Beckham, there is no better professional. Why that is in doubt really baffles me. In the end, it has been tough to get noticed in MLS which is why Beckham needed to be in Europe…the takeover incidents came a little too early when the Beckham camp should be concentrating on the football first.
    I can’t see anything but success in the long term for Beckham. You may know, I had listed top 5 areas that Beckham should focus on and this is just on the football side of things.

  3. Thank you for your comment Diane, I’m glad you liked the piece. In Grant’s defence, I should point out that the details of AEG/19 in my article have all been included with a helping hand from The Beckham Experiment.

  4. OK, I may break down and read it yet! But I’m still waiting for the used paperback version ;-).

  5. i agree – he’s proven people wrong his entire career and there is no reason he will continue to do so with the Galaxy.

  6. Thanks all for your additional comments. Bobby, I checked out your post – nicely done and agree with your list of five improvements wholeheartedly.

  7. Disagree completely. As somebody who cares deeply about the future of MLS and who has followed the Galaxy closely, what’s struck me most by Beckham’s tenure here is how self-centered and unprofessional and dishonest his behavior has been in the last season. I think he came here with good intentions, but they fell through fast when he was faced with reality.

    The majority of what he said in his press conference was demonstrably and provably false, to the point of being flat-out lies, and his immature reaction to Grant Wahl in the press conference (over the fact that Beckham refused to participate in the book because he wouldn’t get paid for it) was the behavior of a five-year-old.

    You want to go to Milan, Becks, fine. Go. But don’t lie to us about it.

    If he wants to prove himself to the fans, he can confess to the role of 19 Entertainment for all their hard work in taking down the team in 2008, then confess the truth behind his loan, then apologize to all the fans and everybody who cares about the team for phoning it in last year in his little sulk after his best friend Terry Byrne got axed from his top-secret Galaxy consulting job.

    What Seattle has proved is that we do NOT need players like David Beckham, who view MLS as an optional commitment that they only need to pay attention to if nothing better has come along.

    I had high hopes for the Beckham experiment. I was wrong. It’s time for him to go, right now, and make way for the players who are really willing to make a difference to the league.

  8. All fair points, Laurie. Beckham got it wrong first time around, VERY wrong. And I’m undecided on the value of Beckham the player to MLS now. However, I believe he’s capable of benefiting MLS in the long term and I suspect that’s his intention. After all, his academy in LA is a commercial concern and success of football in the States would help him too.

    Nobody’s saying he’s doing it for nothing but he is definitely capable. Personally I’d hope that when his career ends the influence of 19 will wane.

  9. Will be interesting to see if his feud with Donovan over the book will hamper the Galaxy performance in the MLS.

  10. Thanks Chris on your comments on my five points!
    Becks dont seem to be getting any favours from the Galaxy fans! The stay seemed to be getting rather untenable…though Beckham has been through worse…

  11. You may be right, Chris. But to me, abandoning the team until after WC 2010 and then expecting to be welcomed back with open arms so he can continue to promote his brand in the US is a little bit like the rich guy dumping his first loyal wife for a trophy wife — then, after he has a couple of strokes and the trophy wife leaves him for a better time, coming back to the first wife expecting to be taken care of.

    Sorry, dude. You had your chance. You blew it.

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