Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Top Five Improvement Areas For David Beckham To Have A Successful MLS Return

This article appears in the July 6, 2009, issue of Sports Illustrated magazine.
Reprinted from The Beckham Experiment, by Grant Wahl. Copyright © 2009 by Grant Wahl. Published by Crown Publishers, a division of Random House Inc.

After his five-month loan to Italian superclub AC Milan, David Beckham is expected back with the Los Angeles Galaxy and scheduled to play on July 16 against the New York Red Bulls at Giants Stadium. But when he takes the field the mood will be far less giddy than the one that heralded his arrival in the U.S. in 2007. In Beckham's two years with the Galaxy he has successfully sold jerseys and served as celebrity eye candy, but the soccer story has been an epic disaster, from his injury-plagued season in '07 through a loss-filled campaign in '08.

Beckham's side made sure he became team captain, and later they engaged in a behind-the-scenes takeover of Galaxy management. Yet L.A. failed to reach the MLS playoffs both years. By the end of the '08 season Beckham was barely speaking to his teammate Landon Donovan, MLS's leading scorer, who questioned the Englishman's commitment to the team.

The Beckham Experiment is a story of worlds colliding, bringing together the planet's most famous athlete with teammates who earned as little as $12,900 a year. But that inequity was only the start of a downward spiral that, on the eve of Beckham's return, has turned into a soccer fiasco.


The summit meeting took place at Mastro's, a high-class steak house in Beverly Hills. On July 25, 2007 -- three days after their welcome-to-Hollywood party, hosted by Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, and Will and Jada Pinkett Smith -- David and Victoria Beckham joined Landon Donovan and his wife, Bianca Kajlich, for a get-to-know-you meal. At the Home Depot Center, 10-foot-high profiles of Beckham and Donovan stared at each other from huge banners. Now, for the first time, the team's two biggest stars were facing each other across the dinner table.

Nearly anywhere else in the world, Donovan's achievements would have made him a household name, a fixture on the covers of sports magazines and (considering that his wife starred in the CBS sitcom Rules of Engagement) celebrity rags. As a 20-year-old at the 2002 World Cup he had scored the goal that sealed the most important victory in U.S. men's soccer history, a 2-0 second-round defeat of archrival Mexico. Now 25, Donovan had won three MLS titles and been voted the national team's player of the year a record three times. Yet it was his fate -- equal parts fortune and misfortune -- to have been born in the U.S. Which is to say that the three dozen paparazzi outside Mastro's were not there for him.

Beckham was supplanting Donovan as the main attraction in U.S. soccer, and if MLS's Beckham Experiment was to work, Donovan needed to be happy. Beckham knew it. So did Frank Yallop, the team's mild-mannered coach, who had left nothing to chance. Yallop put Beckham's locker next to Donovan's, the better to encourage their interaction, and the coach had arranged this dinner, bringing along his own wife, Karen, in the hope that there would be less pressure on the two couples if it were a table for six.

As the wives chatted among themselves and Yallop got the conversation going among the men by asking Beckham about his playing days in Europe, Donovan recalled two exchanges that had taken place just the week before. On successive days he had met with Yallop and Galaxy president and general manager Alexi Lalas, and each had told him that "people above me" -- meaning Tim Leiweke, CEO of AEG, which owned the Galaxy -- thought Beckham should be the team captain. Both men tried to sugarcoat the blow. "I don't really look at who has the armband," Yallop told Donovan. "You're a leader to me, a great player. It would just be great if you could have a relationship with David and you pass it on to him." Lalas, for his part, issued Donovan a challenge: "Let him be the captain; you be the star."

What they didn't tell Donovan was that the request that he give up his captaincy had originated not with Leiweke but with Beckham's camp. The topic had come up when Lalas and Yallop visited Beckham and Terry Byrne, Beckham's best friend and personal manager, in Madrid the previous spring. After a lunch at Beckham's house, the host stayed inside as Byrne walked Lalas and Yallop onto the porch. "What are you doing about the captaincy?" asked Byrne, who felt that Beckham should wear the armband as soon as he joined the team. Neither Lalas nor Yallop felt comfortable deciding right then, so the men agreed to table the idea. But in subsequent months, Lalas says, Byrne made his best friend's wishes explicit more than once to Lalas and Leiweke. (Beckham declined to comment on this or any other issue in this story. Sources close to Beckham confirmed that Byrne had brought up the captaincy, but only in Madrid, and denied that the request had come from Beckham himself.)

Donovan's first thought about his bosses' request? That's pretty s-----. He didn't have a problem with someone else being captain, least of all a player with Beckham's credentials, but he did have an acute sense of being disrespected. So he decided not to act immediately. Lalas and Yallop might sweat, but before he'd consider surrendering the armband Donovan wanted to get to know Beckham. That night at Mastro's, over thick steaks and fine red wine, was his first chance.


Donovan gave up the captaincy three weeks later. The more he thought about it, the more he realized he had only two options. He could dig in his heels, force Yallop to make the change himself and create tension with Beckham in the locker room. Or he could accept that he was boxed into a corner, give up the armband and hear public praise from Beckham and Yallop for his selfless act for the good of the team. Of course, nobody -- including Donovan -- would tell the media the real story behind the change.

Meanwhile, Beckham made an effort to fit in, and on his first MLS road trip he endured an only-in-America experience. After his first training session with the Galaxy, in Washington two days before a nationally televised game against D.C. United, he helped organize a dinner with 10 other players at Morton's steak house in Arlington, Va. Beckham had enjoyed the players-only meals at Real Madrid, and if he was going to be just one of the lads in the Galaxy locker room, things needed to get off on the right foot. Not long after they took their table, the waiter asked if anyone wanted wine. They all raised their hands.

"O.K.," the waiter said. "I need to see some I.D.'s."

"I don't have my I.D. with me," Beckham said.

"No I.D., no wine!" the waiter announced, theatrically snatching Beckham's wineglass.

Beckham thought it was a put-on. "Is this guy taking the piss?" he asked. But the waiter was serious. When the Galaxy's Portuguese defender Abel Xavier couldn't produce an I.D., his wineglass disappeared too. "What is this?" the 34-year-old Xavier thundered. "I have a kid who can drink." The other players laughed hysterically, partly because the waiter hadn't recognized the world's most famous athlete and partly because Beckham and Xavier were so used to being mobbed in Europe that they didn't bother carrying identification. Welcome to soccer in the U.S., guys.

Beckham's bodyguard pulled the waiter aside to explain. Soon the maître d' came over. "I don't care who they are!" the players heard the waiter say to his boss. Finally the maître d' prevailed, and Beckham and Xavier got their wineglasses in time to join their teammates in a toast.

The Morton's dinner was the first time Beckham had held center stage at a players-only meal, and he came out of his shell, answering questions and telling stories about his days with Manchester United, the English national team and Real Madrid. The vibe was comfortable. There was no awkwardness with Beckham. "You can break his balls," said defender Chris Albright, "and he'll break your balls right back." Kyle Martino, a midfielder, was stunned that Beckham could be such a regular guy.

And then the check came.

Beckham was earning a $6.5 million salary, and his income, with endorsements, would balloon to $48.2 million. Martino was making a salary of $55,297 -- before taxes -- and living in one of the U.S.'s most expensive cities. Nearly everyone at the table was thinking, Is Beckham going to pick up the check? But nobody said anything. Beckham, meanwhile, had never been in this situation before. The players on his other teams had all been millionaires, and Real Madrid paid for all team meals anyway. The Galaxy provided only a $45 per diem on the road. What would Beckham do? What should he do?

Donovan eyed the bill from his seat. He had paid for teammates' dinners in the past, and he'd made his position clear even before Beckham's arrival. "He'd better be picking up meals too," Donovan had told teammates, "or else I'll call him out on it." But defender Chris Klein, one of Donovan's best friends on the team, had a different viewpoint.

"If you're out to dinner with the guys and you pick up a check here or there, then fine," Klein said. "But if you start to feel like you're being used, these aren't your friends anymore. These are leeches. You can look at it two ways: Here's this guy that's making a lot of money, and maybe he should pick up the tab. But the other side of it is, maybe he's trying so hard to be one of the guys, if he's paying for everything then he's not one of the guys anymore."

Beckham didn't pick up the check. He put in enough to cover his share and passed it along. That would be standard operating procedure at meals throughout the season. "None of us care," said Kelly Gray, one of Beckham's frequent dining companions. "It's just nice to go out to dinner."

Donovan didn't call Beckham out at Morton's after all, but he could never get over Beckham's alligator arms when the bill arrived. Nobody would have believed it, he thought: David Beckham is a cheapskate.


If you liked what you have read so far, you can pre-order "The Beckham Experiment: How the World's Most Famous Athlete Tried to Conquer America". The Beckham Experiment will hit the stores on July 14th.

Will LA Galaxy see a different David Beckham?

From my years watching David Beckham the footballer, I have neither heard nor read about Beckham associated with traits like non-committed, missed training and lazy. But these were the Landon Donovan's impression of Beckham.

I do believe though that David Beckham was not prepared for LA Galaxy and the MLS the first time round. In what is effectively his second stint with the Galaxy, my opinion is that Beckham will be a different footballer - the true dedicated professional that he is renowned to be.

Here are my Top 5 Improvement areas for David Beckham to be a success in Major League Soccer:

1. Be a leader - Beckham must make his vast footballing experience count. He must start taking charge on and off the field. While as captain, Beckham was disappointing. He must make up for that by setting a significantly better example this time round.

2. Dictate play from central midfield - Beckham does not have the pace and the dribble to beat defenders any longer. Instead, Bruce Arena should maximise the one strength that Beckham has i.e. his passing ability. Beckham must be deployed in centre midfield and do the "Andrea Pirlo" work of linking defence-midfield-attack together. His ability to pick out team mates with long and/or short passes will really be a weapon that no other team in the MLS could contain. Beckham should be made the "quarterback" of LA Galaxy. Think Carlos Valderrama...

3. Concentrate on LA Galaxy's team performance - The glitzy LA life holds many charms and lots of celebrities. Nevertheless, to be successful, Beckham must start caring and playing for the team.

4. Demonstrate desire, passion and motivation - Three qualities that Beckham has in abundance and this must shine through in this second time of asking.

5. Rebuild relationship with Landon Donovan - The isolation between Beckham and other Galaxy players, especially Donovan were seen as a wedge which ended the Galaxy's season.

Through these five changes, David Beckham should become the marquee star that the MLS had hoped for.


Andrew Saul said...

It was a bad fit to begin with. Beckham is just still too good to be playing in the US, especially if he still wants to play for his country. The MLS doesn't need an established talisman like Beckham, they can't fully use him. They need to build their own identity and story. Players like Donovan are what they need, and the performance of many players on the US team at the Confederations Cup are what they need. MLS players and MLS style players. For heavens sake South and Central America is just a stone's throw away! And the US is home to massive migrant communities from nearly every country. Surely the US is a more appealing place to play for at least a sizeable chunk of young and senior players than Europe?
They are the import players the MLS needs. Not a scattering of aging Europeans.

TheFlatBackFour said...

Thanks Andrew for the comments. The players from Americas are making MLS their own domain, that's for sure. What European players should and will bring are strong work ethic and discipline. I still believe David Beckham can be a success but the attitude must change and he must realise that he is playing in a developing league. The actions are different and that involves Beckham performing and trying hard on the pitch as well as off it. With his image, he is potentially the best ambassador possible for MLS.

Live Sports said...

I agree with the commentators above Praise be to Allaah the European players must have a strong performance

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