David Beckham is back in MLS and and after only a few weeks is fully engaged in every commotion related to soccer in the United States. Expansion team ownership, international competition, player contracts, ticket sales, refereeing, MLS Cup, and fan confrontations are now all Beckham-related and bear his mark.
The LA Galaxy are headed for the playoffs, and Beckham already said he’s returning to AC Milan this winter to train for England and the World Cup, and that he’ll return to play and likely buy an MLS franchise, so a brief recap of summer lessons is advised before the midterm.
Lesson 1: Fan behavior gets boundaries
MLS fans that normally sit in empty stadiums and until this summer never saw the flood of teams like Inter Milan, Club America, Chelsea, Barcelona, and Everton in the US, aggressively booed Beckham and taunted him with hate banners when he walked on the field in front of huge crowds after returning from AC Milan. And the fan were shocked that the former England captain responded in a very human manner after they insulted his wife, Victoria. On two occasions he approached his antagonizers and shared words, once encouraging a fan to face him on the field – for which Beckham was fined $1,000 by MLS.
Last week at Seattle Sounders, seventeen minutes in, Beckham dove studs-up between the feet of friend and former teammate Peter Vagenas with a right-footed tackle that earned him a quick trip to the locker room and a suspension for the following high-stakes match against Chicago Fire. The tackle appeared intended more for a red card than the ball or a leg, and at the end of the day served as a lesson in manners for shabby fans.
Over 20,000 ticket holders in Chicago didn’t see Beckham play on August 19, but they did see their home team shut out 2-0 after Landon Donovan broke down the middle and lashed the ball under Fire keeper Jon Busch and into the corner of the net. The Galaxy have improved.
“There’s always going to be someone out there that’s going to say something about it not being a good idea me being here or it’s not working”Beckham told reporters in Boston, “but statistics say it is.”
Lesson 2: Numbers don’t lie
Twenty-one of the 25 largest crowds in the US this summer supported international matches, many tied in some way to Beckham’s relationship with MLS and Soccer United Marketing.
93,137 Los Angeles Galaxy-Barcelona (Aug. 1) Pasadena, Calif.
82,252 Mexico-Haiti (July 19) Arlington, Texas
81,224 Chelsea-Inter Milan (July 21) Pasadena, Calif.
79,156 USA-Mexico (July 26) East Rutherford, N.J.
72,368 D.C. United-Real Madrid (Aug. 9) Landover, Md.
71,203 AC Milan-Chelsea (July 24) Baltimore
66,848 Seattle Sounders-Barcelona (Aug. 5) Seattle
65,289 Seattle Sounders-Chelsea (July 18 ) Seattle
61,572 Barcelona-Guadalajara (Aug 8 ) San Francisco
57,229 Chelsea-Club America (July 26) Arlington, Texas
55,173 Mexico-Costa Rica (July 23) Chicago
51,115 Mexico-Venezuela (July 24) Atlanta
50,306 AC Milan-Club America (July 22) Atlanta
47,713 Mexico-Panama (July 9) Houston
42,531 AC Milan-Inter Milan (July 26) Foxboro, Mass.
32,526 Seattle Sounders-Colorado Rapids (June 28 ) Seattle
32,500 Mexico-Nicaragua (July 5) Oakland, Calif.
32,405 Seattle Sounders-D.C. United (July 25) Seattle
32,204 Seattle Sounders-Houston Dynamo (July 11) Seattle
31,026 Inter Milan-Club America (July 19) Stanford, Calif.
31,087 USA-Panama (July 18 ) Philadelphia
30,624 Mexico-Guatemala (June 29) San Diego
27,000 El Salvador-Costa Rica (July 3) Carson, Calif.
27,000 Los Angeles Galaxy-AC Milan (July 19) Carson, Calif.
26,623 New England Revolution-Los Angeles Galaxy (Aug 8 ) Foxboro
* Figures according to Soccer America
According to Barcelona economic vice-president Joan Boix, Barcelona’s 12-day tour of the US generated $8.5 million. Average attendance for the three Barcelona matches against the Galaxy, Sounders, and Chivas was 73,852, and Boix claimed the games sparked partnerships with US-based companies.
Althought the Galacy lost 2-1 to Barcelona, it was Beckham who scored off a magestic free kick shown around the world. The goal silenced critics on both sides of the ocean, perhaps more his European colleagues who doubted his decision to play for MLS.
“I must admit it was one of the ones I enjoyed, I’ve watched it a few times since,” said Beckham. “I haven’t scored one like that for a while, so to do it against Barcelona, great rivals of mine when I was at Real Madrid. I know they’re only in their preseason, but they’re champions of Europe, champions of Spain, and won the Spanish Cup.”
Lesson 3: Beckham closes the book on Grant Wahl
Another media blitz was created by Sports Illustrated writer Grant Wahl, who wrote the rather bitchy The Beckham Experiment released precisely as Beckham returned to the Galaxy. Wahl, who followed Beckham during his first two years, welcomed MLS’ biggest investment back with a back-handed slap, telling tales of team infighting, Beckham’s disloyalty, mismanagement, and failure.
“Unfortunately for David,” said Landon Donovan, “no one wants to hear those things about them, especially through a book, so it was difficult for him, but to his credit he’s been a man about it. He’s taken it like a man and he’s done a great job of moving past it and I can’t say a lot of people would have done that. David’s been great since he’s been back – in every way.”
Now in second place in the Western Conference, the Galaxy are headed into the playoffs for the first time in three years. Galaxy head Coach Bruce Arena released most of last season’s team and built a squad of older, experienced players and with a record of 8-4-10, the Galaxy has lost the fewest games of any MLS team this season.
“My working with David over the last month has been nothing but fabulous,” said Arena. “He’s been a great member of the team, he does a great job off the field as well as on the field, he’s very cooperative with us in every way, and you can see the quality of his play. He’s a fantastic player.”
“People look for criticisms or just try to knock the organization or knock the ideas that they’re trying to bring to this league and to this game in the US,” said Beckham. “There’s always going to be the bad out there, but we as an organization and me as a person and us as a team, we always look at the positive sides and there’s a lot more positives than negatives.”
4. Lesson 4: Beckham plans to buy MLS franchise, hints at player contract changes
With a rather small and polite media contingent in Boston, Beckham confirmed his plans to obtain an MLS franchise.
“It’s something I’m very interested in because when I stop playing I still want to be involved in the game and I still want to be an ambassador of this league,” said Beckham. “It’s a long-term plan, it’s not something where I’ve come over for a couple years and just going to walk away. It’s something I am passionate about and something I do believe in, so I want to stick to that. There’s a deal in place where I can purchase an MLS team or start a franchise so it’s something that I’m definitely interested in and wouldn’t have something in my contract without wanting to do it. I can’t go into specifics but the option is there.”
Beckham indicated contractual relationships with players must change for MLS to attract talent, and this is particularly interesting considering the MLS Players Union collective bargaining agreement expires January 31, 2010. The union included free agency and guaranteed contracts in their proposed agreement.
“That’s what players in Europe look for, they look for a challenge,” said Beckham. “Coming over would be a challenge because it’s a different league and a different style of soccer. In years to come there will be more players that come over from Europe but the whole system is different. In Europe you’re contracted two, three, four, five years at a time and players see out those contracts, so that’s what’s difficult, a different situation with the system.”
“There are a lot of things that we would like to see changed,” said Donovan of the Players Union’s proposed CBA, “and the beauty is that the league probably agrees with us on a lot of them. Now it’s a matter of getting things done that we want, coming to an agreement that makes sense for everyone . . . As for the salary cap, I think everybody would want that increased – the league, ourselves, the owners, the coaches. The only thing it does is make for the ability to get better talent, to keep American players home by paying them more money so it’s a win-win for everyone and I think everyone realizes that.”
Lesson 5: MLS franchises could develop international flavor
Beckham’s ownership of a MLS franchise might encourage Barcelona to return with another franchise proposal, as they are rumored to be doing with the New York Red Bulls.
“The treatment has to be different,” Marcelo Claure told El Deber after pulling out of the deal, “since the economic picture changes if David Beckham does not return to the US. In this case the league, because Beckham represents economic figures, should consider what it can mean to have an institution like Barca to MLS – there is a big difference with a player. MLS needs to analyze what would be the benefit to Barcelona of Spain in the league.”
Barca wanted to bring their young players to MLS as a sort of reserve team and give them game time. According to Kartik Krishnaiyer of MLS Talk, Barca was concerned if MLS owned the contracts of the Barca youth players that came here, MLS could turn around and sell them directly to a rival club and Barca wanted more control over the players they brought in. Barca was concerned about MLS limiting their spending via the salary cap because they wanted to bring as many players as they could and to spend as much money as they wanted.
“We are pioneers,” said Joan Oliver, general director of Barcelona, “and if it turns out well, other clubs will follow us.”
Beckham is back in MLS and confirming his long-term commitment to soccer in the US, and that could attract foreign club investors like Barca back to MLS. Imagine if every club touring the US this summer – Everton, Barcelona, Chelsea, Club America, Inter Milan, AC MIlan – owned an MLS franchise and brought their brand, their history, their philosophy, culture to the US. Pretty exciting.
All things considered, Beckham has not done bad in bringing order to the MLS schoolyard.