From the MLS to the national teams to Americans abroad
Zac Lee Rigg
David Beckham celebrated the LA Galaxy's MLS Cup triumph in the most American way conceivable: chugging a bottle of Budweiser.
The entire night must have been what the Anshutz Entertainment Group had in mind when they convinced Major League Soccer to loosen the salary cap rules and woo Becks Stateside: the Home Depot Center packed with temporary seating to bring its capacity over 30,000, Beckham kissing the MLS Cup shortly after softly crying in an on-field interview with ESPN, an after party featuring will.i.am as the DJ, and plenty of good old fashioned product placement.
If AEG saw half a decade into the future at the Hollywood ending that would bring Beckham his greatest success this side of the Atlantic on the very last competitive match of his contract, well, they were stringing us along incredibly well. Because the opening act never even hinted at that possibility.
David Beckham showed up in California with bursts of confetti, sunshine and million-dollar smiles, his cropped hair dyed blonde, fresh off a title win in Spain with Real Madrid and carrying a lingering ankle injury. He'd never seen an MLS match.
That changed quickly. The ankle kept him on the sideline, granting a front-row seat to exactly the type of league he'd joined, assuming he could peer around the two dozen or so cameras that snapped and flashed around him.
With millions in advertising on the line, not to mention a back-loaded schedule designed to flaunt Golden Balls in as many cities as possible, Beckham was forced to play injured, often making grimace-punctuated cameos. He started only two MLS games in 2007.
The next year somehow got worse. Hapless Ruud Gullit floundered around incoherently. In one press conference the Dutch coach admitted that he was unaware of Frankie Hejduk, the US international who was perhaps the premier fullback in the league and now is a member of the Galaxy. Gullit's ignorance of opposition defenses applied equally to his own, with Los Angeles conceding a league-worst 62 goals in 30 games (the next worst record was D.C. United with 51 conceded) and finishing with the fewest points in MLS.
The lasting memory of Beckham in this time is of him standing aloof, hands on hips, isolated on the wings, watching his disaster of a team spiraling into tactical anarchy.
"Until you play here, you don't realize how much of a challenge it is,” Beckham said on Sunday. “It's been a challenge – physically, mentally. More physically than anything. Coming over here at 31 years old, I probably wasn't ready for that at the time.”
It's not merely uncouth physical play, though there's certainly plenty of that. There's a handful of pitches, both turf and grass, simply not becoming to aging knees. Then there's the travel. This year, the Vancouver Whitecaps traveled over 60,000 miles. Your average European team log roughly 5,000 miles a season. That kind of air time – MLS sides rarely, if ever, charter planes – is not forgiving on the body.
Beckham quickly scampered off to George Clooney's Italian villa, where AC Milan graciously let him try to remind Fabio Capello that he still existed.
America assumed the gritty MLS had proved too tough to chew for a pampered star who didn't care as much about the growth of the game as he cooed in interviews. Tellingly, Beckham began reverting to calling it 'football' instead of 'soccer'. But misconceptions were rampant.
"I think we underestimated the challenge of (Beckham) playing for England, and we didn't expect his desire to go out on loan (to AC Milan),” league commissioner Don Garber told the Associated Press this week. “But I also totally underestimated how hardworking and tough he is. He will play through injury and fatigue. That warrior-like mentality was like nobody expected in MLS. This guy wants to win, and he'll do anything.”
Much changed by the time Beckham came back. His return coincided with the release of The Beckham Experiment, by Sports Illustrated writer Grant Wahl, which exposed the growing discord between Beckham and the Galaxy.
Much of it should have been expected: Beckham, who was projected to make $50 million a year in America including endorsements (he made $40 million in 2011), sat in the same locker room with kids earning the league minimum of $17,000 per annum. But other incidents, including the marketing ploy which nicked the captain's armband from Landon Donovan, hinted at more malicious undertones.
Then there was that damning stat: Los Angeles had a better record when Beckham didn't play than when he did.
The other changes happened on-field. New coach Bruce Arena had built a team based prominently on veterans who helped bring him to the quarterfinals of the 2002 World Cup. The experienced players better dealt with any drama tagging along behind Beckham and the paparazzi.
With Becks slightly sheepishly sliding into an already-functioning team – more accessory than crucial component – the Galaxy seared to the MLS Cup final, only to lose to Real Salt Lake in penalties.
Again Beckham took off for Milan in the off-season. Except this time, with one innocuous step backwards, he severed his Achilles tendon and, with it, his chances of representing England in the World Cup.
With that childhood dream cruelly trodden into the soft South African soil, for the first time Beckham was wholly the Galaxy's as soon as his Achilles healed. From a deep-lying midfield position, pinging raking balls to the corners for devastating counterattacks, he's led the Galaxy to two consecutive Supporters' Shields, given to the team with the best regular season record.
Lo and behold, the consistent on-field excellence helped foster off-field growth.
In 2011, MLS sold out 87 matches, with average attendance swelling over seven percent to overtake the NHL and NBA. Both the league and the Galaxy signed hugely improved TV deals in recent months, and a 19th team will join the league in 2012.
“2011 was arguably the best year in the history of the league on all measures: the respect for the league here and abroad, our attendance and TV ratings, our new deal with NBC, a continually improving quality of play, massive popularity in the expansion markets,” Garber told Sports Illustrated.
Ahead of the final, Arena, AEG president Tim Leiweke and Galaxy president Tom Payne all declared Beckham's five-year tenure in MLS a success.
"Has it been worth it, the David experiment?” Payne mused to the LA Times. “The answer is yes. Absolutely."
But this is America, and America loves the saccharine drama of the playoffs.
So Beckham battled on, knowing only an MLS Cup would convince the naysayers. The cliched war imagery –“battled on – just about fits in this case. Through most of the season, Beckham played despite a fractured spine which caused back spasms. Against the New York Red Bulls he needed smelling salts to return after sustaining what teammate Mike Magee called “probably a concussion.” On the Tuesday before the final he tore his hamstring. The Galaxy attempted to cover up his absence from training by citing a cold he contracted Wednesday.
At 36 it's fair to say Beckham's body is deteriorating. It's not fair, however, to suggest being “pampered” has anything to do with it.
“The way David has played through some pretty serious injuries the past few weeks inspired me a lot,” Donovan said. “It forced a lot of us to just get on with it when after all the games we were pretty worn down and physically beat up. It was inspirational.”
Beckham maintains that he hasn't decided his future. He wants to line up for his country in one last tournament, the Olympics, and chances are he'll select the option that gives him the best chance to do so.
Whatever his decision, the misty-eyed veteran limping out of the press conference to mark his MLS Cup win – one hand on an ice pack, the other smoothing back his slick lank hair – bears hardly a passing resemblance to the supersonic celebrity who arrived cool and aloof and disgustingly rich in America half a decade earlier.
“Whatever he decides to do, I support it 100 percent. He's earned that,” Arena said. “If he decides to get on his horse and ride into the sunset, I'm all for it – whatever he wants to do.”
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