Thursday, August 06, 2009

Book Report: The Beckham Experiment by Grant Wahl

Former English international footballer, semi-icon and Yogi Berra-like source for great quotes, George Best, once said of David Beckham, "He cannot kick with his left foot, he cannot head a ball, he cannot tackle and he doesn't score many goals. Apart from that he's all right." David Beckham is perhaps the most well known soccer player on the planet--not the best mind you (Best's assessment has more just a nugget of truth), just the most well known. In 2007, Brand Beckham was on a collision course with American soccer.

When it comes to soccer in America, there are a few of mostly accepted premises:

1. There is no such thing as bad press.

2. Soccer in the United States has long been a red-headed step child through the fringes of the American professional sporting landscape.

3. American soccer, despite its massive grassroots invovlement, will never generate excitement in the sporting media.

David Beckham's arrival would tested, and partly rejected, all of these premises. The result of the Beckham Experiment in American soccer has shown that American soccer is not the backwater that most people, including American sports commentators, like to think it is. Just like American football, baseball or basketball, Americans like winners and after the first two years of the Beckham experiment, it is far from clear if the experiment is a success or that David Beckham is a winner in American soccer. No doubth Beckham is a winner in most respects, both as a player and a celebrity,

Wahl's treatment of Beckham's arrival is spectacular, from the involvement of Beckham's handlers to the reaction of squad players like Alan Gordon or Chris Klein and the L.A. Galaxy's other, more productive superstar Landon Donovan, you get a great view of the highs and lows of Beckham's arrival. The collision of celebrity lifestyle like David and Victoria Beckham's with the lifestyle of squad players like Alan Gordon or league veteran's like Chris Klein is well highlighted. But even if Landon Donovan's expectations that Beckham "splash the cash" in the dressing room is unrealistic, there is no doubt that Beckham's past experience, in which even teenagers make more per week at big clubs like Manchester United than squad players like Gordon make in a month, it is hard to believe that problems wouldn't occur.

To be sure, in the summer of 2007, the arrival of Beckham was a disappointment because of his injuries and the perceived need, by MLS, L.A. Galaxy executives, including Alexi Lalas (who as a former player should have known better), Beckham's management company 19 Entertainment, ESPN and even Beckham himself, to rush into playing in order to justify the obscene ticket prices, and hurricane force like press frenzy. Yet, the decision, in hind sight of course, was a disaster. Beckham was not effective, not a pleasure to watch and as Wahl points out, something of a drag on his team. Wahl notes that L.A. had a better winning percentage with Beckham on the bench than when in the game.

The 2008 season was an unmitigated disaster for Beckham and the Galaxy. The Galaxy went some 12 games without a win, nearly three times longer than any previous winless streak that Beckham, the player, had ever experienced. Beckham lost interest, lost focuse and ultimately, after the Galaxy failed to reach the playoffs again, left to return to Europe on obstensibly a close season loan deal to keep fit, which resulted in long term loan with AC Milan.

By all accounts, even Wahl's, it appears that Beckham really tried to fit in while in the locker room and training ground. But after over a decade of playing at the highest level on some of the best teams in the world, Beckham had trouble adjusting to a different level of play. Make no mistake, MLS's quality and level of play is not on par with the English Premier League or Spain's La Liga. I am sure that Beckham understood that, but what became glaringly apparent is that Beckham may have underestimated the passion in the American soccer game. Professional footballers in America play the game not for a paycheck but because they love the game, not because of the size of their paycheck. I think the American qualities of hustle, grit, determination have carried the game in America for a long time, a fact that may have surprised Beckham.

What is missed in all the money that was made, in all the talk about bad performances on the field and all the recrminiations that have occured in the past several months is, what about the soccer? Even Wahl's treatment of this subject matter fails to focus much on that subject, which obstensibly was one reason for Beckham to come to America. For those interested in Beckham's arrival and his impact on the game, this is not necessarily the book to read. By all accoutns, Beckham's arrival and shockingly poor performance with the Galaxy in 2007 and 2008 is largely a study by Wahl of the collision of super-stars and squad players, of a 11-year-old sports league and celebrity the likes of which MLS had never seen. That is not to say that Wahl does a poor job of depicting that dichotomy and often painfully obvious problems of Beckham in the MLS, but it should be made clear that this is not a book about soccer, but a book about a soccer player and a soccer league.

Beckham's arrival, and the rules change creating the designated player in the MLS, was supposed to help raise the quality of the game in the MLS. The big question is has it? For every designated player success story, like Guillermo Barros Schelotto of the Columbus Crew, there is an abject failure like Marcello Gallardo of the 2008 DC United team. The level of MLS play has gotten better, slowly.

It is the pace of the improvement that no doubt bothers MLS executives, soccer fans, and perhaps David Beckham as well. One quality player, who does not devote his full time and attention to the game, cannot single-handedly raise the level of play in a 13, 14 or 15 team league like the MLS, and certainly not a league where two teams' salary caps are less than what Beckham earns in a year. But Beckham, and his publicity commitments and endorsement deals, clearly did not even spend the requisite time with his own team to make his team a better squad. Beckham, the $6 million dollar a year man, could have sat with L.A.'s development players, showing them via video tape, what makes a better player, a better team. Beckham could have, indeed perhaps had a duty to do so, help make his team better using his knowledge of the game at its highest levels. It is clear that he did not do so, and to be fair, it may not have been all Beckham's fault, but some of the blame does sit upon his shoulders. I don't know what Schelotto does with his Columbus Crew teammates, but it is clear that Columbus has gotten better as a team since his arrival in Columbus.

Can Beckham still make a difference in American soccer? The answer I believe is yes, he can. Well in one way, his return from an extended loan deal with AC Milan, we have learned that American fans are and can be just as passionate as soccer fans elsewhere and Beckham cannot simply act like this is a testimonial match. But to make the difference, Beckham has to dedicate himself, both as a player and as a celebrity, to make soccer a priority. Not only his inflence as a player, but his ability to connect world class coaches, trainers and players to the MLS is what is important, and Beckham has that ability. I would like to see the Designated Players get together, and spend some time in the close season putting their knowledge, their skill and their passion for the game into play--helping develop not only MLS, but players, coaches and even referees in this country.

The Beckham experiment is largely unfinished and we probably won't have enough data until after the 2010 World Cup, where Beckham is hoping to play for England. What is clear is that MLS has gotten press, some bad, some good. American media has woken up to soccer in America, not as a result of Beckham himself, but as a result of other factors, and it is clear that while soccer remains in the second tier of American sports leagues, that position is far from fixed in stone. But American soccer is not a sporting backwater any longer and perhaps credit goes to Beckham for helping get people to think about American soccer.

In the end, if just two people who had never gone to an L.A. Galaxy match before Beckham, see Beckahm and continue to go to matches, that could be enough. MLS is a 14 year old league and very, very few teenagers are prodigies. In the end, that may be the biggest lesson, when you match a teenager with the greatest soccer celebrity, you won't see anything beyond star worship and squealing fans at first, but maybe when the teenager is in their late 20's, when the hero worship diminishes, you will see the true effect.

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