Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Ciao David Beckham

In addition to covering the Houston Dynamo, I cover Serie A in particular and Calcio in general. Therefore, I have been paying close attention to the David Beckham situation. Much to the chagrin of my colleagues in Los Angeles, ever since the deal to loan Beckham to A.C. Milan, I have taken the position that DB23 now DB32 will not be returning to the L.A. Galaxy.

Last month, Beckham made his Serie A debut against A.S. Roma at the Stadio Olimpico in the Eternal City (in full disclosure, I am a Roma fan), and while he looked a little rusty, Beckham played until the 89th minute and showed signs that he was starting to mesh with his new Rossoneri teammates. Since his closely watched Serie A debut, Beckham has scored two goals for Milan and played a pivotal role in this past Sunday’s victory over S.S. Lazio, a 3 – nil drubbing that moved Milan into second place, 6 points behind their derby rival, Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan.

On Monday, Milan included Beckham on its updated UEFA Cup squad, an act that only fanned the flames of speculation that Milan would make a move to permanently acquire Beckham from the Galaxy. Today, news reports indicated that following Milan’s 2-2 draw with the Rangers in Scotland, Beckham openly expressed his desire that his loan to Milan turn into a permanent trade. The current loan arrangement lasts until March 8, and, in my opinion, the Galaxy would be smart to take the money and leave Becks in Italy.

That being said, I would like to put forth my eulogy for the Beckham MLS experience, which might be skewed by the fact that I am in the only existing MLS market that has not experienced Beckham on its pitch. Since his arrival on these shores in the summer of 2007, I believe that Beckham has been detriment to the L.A. Galaxy, but a boon to Major League Soccer.

In January of 2007, when Beckham’s move to the Galaxy was announced, it appeared that Beckham’s career in Europe was lying in a casket, awaiting transport to the cemetery. He had been banished from the England National Squad after it had failed to live up to the overly optimistic expectations foisted upon it by its supporters and press during Germany ‘06, meanwhile it appeared that Real Madrid’s Fabio Capello had little use for Beckham. A move to the MLS, to the Galaxy, would ensure Beckham playing time in the sport he loves and make him a big fish in a little pond. I suspect that while the deal was crafted by his people, who are more interested in promoting Brand Beckham than Beckham himself is, Beckham did see the MLS as an opportunity to at least close out his career on the pitch, not the bench.

It wasn’t long after the announcement of Beckham’s move from Spain to a former colonial territory of Spain, that an embarrassed and humiliated Steve McLaren recalled Beckham to the England squad in a desperate, but failed attempt to qualify for Euro ’08. Since that turn of events and despite the changing of the guard from McLaren to Fabio Capello, Beckham has earned his 100th Cap and has seemingly focused his career on being part of the squad fielded by England at South Africa 2010.

But there was a problem, despite the Beckham rule that enabled the L.A. Galaxy to keep the likes of Beckham and Landon Donovan on its roster, the Galaxy front office could not find a way to field squad with the sufficient skill levels to support its offensive firepower. In 2008, the Galaxy did not have much trouble finding the back of the net, but you could drive a bus through their defense and into the net. With that kind of supporting cast, you cannot blame Beckham for being disappointed or blame Capello for concluding that Beckham’s situation at the Galaxy would not help him secure a spot on England’s national team.

While I wish I had been a fly on the wall, I am not privy to the negotiations and positioning that was involved in sealing Beckham’s loan deal to Milan. That being said, I do suspect that Beckham might have shrewdly played-off his management against the Galaxy front office in an effort to put himself into a position where he could better secure himself a spot on the England squad, and kudos for him in pulling off that coup.

On Monday night I, and some select others, had the honor and privilege of spending a couple hours with a former soccer player and current coach that I admire and respect. During that session, we peppered him with several questions, one of which was basically asking him which coach would he most like to punch in the face. He gave his answer in a somewhat coded manner and what I took away from his response was that the coach wasn’t one of his current peers, but a coach that he played for, a coach that had killed his World Cup Finals hopes. As much as the World Cup Finals mean to we fans, we can only barely imagine what it means to soccer players, and much like only a handful of NCAA football players make it to the NFL, only a handful of soccer players around the world make it to the World Cup Finals. Yes, Beckham has been there several times in the past, but he has yet to lift that trophy in victory and 2010 clearly is his last opportunity, his last shot at that kind of glory, a kind of glory that would be ten times as intense as what Santonio Holmes felt this past Sunday when his team won the NFL’s Super Bowl. So, I wish David Beckham all the best in his quest to stay in Milan and play for England in the 2010 World Cup Finals.

That being said, I don’t believe that Beckham’s experience has been a failure, despite the unwarranted self-satisfaction of the soccer haters, and the soccer fans that hate the MLS.

Beckham’s presence in the MLS over the past 1.5 seasons has brought the league a huge amount of press and has caught the attention of both the casual soccer fan as well as the sophisticated soccer fan who had focused primarily on foreign leagues and not the MLS. Like I said above, Beckham never made it to the confines of Estadio Robertson in Houston, but still the crowds packed the late season matches against the Galaxy, crowds that carried over into the play-offs, so much so that Dynamo Coach Dominic Kinnear has expressed his opinion that one of the best crowds he has ever seen was the crowd that packed Robertson Stadium for the 2007 Western Conference Final against the Kansas City Wizards.

I could be wrong, but from this point forward, I suspect that Beckham in the MLS will result in diminishing gains when it comes to crowd attendance and do nothing to help the Galaxy’s prospects at league success, at least until there is a new collective bargaining agreement, and maybe not even then depending on its terms. With the exception of Houston, most of the “new” fans lured out to their local team’s hosting of the Galaxy have satisfied their curiosity and have either decided whether or not they’d continue to support the MLS and/or their local MLS team. I don’t see Beckham’s return to MLS in 2009 as increasing the MLS fan base, but I do see such a return tying the Galaxy’s hands and see them failing to make the playoffs once again.

In the end, I think the Galaxy would benefit from jettisoning Beckham and fielding a better balanced squad, and the MLS would benefit from being able to say it obtained a top player from La Liga and then transferring him off to Serie A.

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