So Long Beckham. You Won’t Be Missed 

Why soccer in America will survive a failed experiment

It would be hard to complain about the serviceable 87 minutes played by David Beckham in last weekend’s L.A.-New England Major League Soccer contest, though he was pretty much a non-factor in the Galaxy’s 2-1 victory.

Still, it appeared that he breathed a little more fire in a rare start for England during Wednesday’s “friendly” against Holland. Beckham got excellent reviews for his half of play, as the two European powerhouses battled to a 2-2 tie.

Two years ago, when Beckham arrived on American shores, at age 32, to play out his senior years in the MLS, it seemed that he was finished — not of his own volition — with international competition. After England sputtered out of the 2006 World Cup after a lackluster performance, the new coach dumped Beckham as captain and left off the team as it pursued the

So Beckham figured why not score a big contract in the star-starved MLS, spread his vast international brand to a huge, new market and enjoy the Hollywood lifestyle, which just might reinvigorate the career of his former Spice Girl wife, Victoria. (The latter may actually have worked out well; there was a Spice Girls reunion tour and now Mrs. Beckham (a.k.a. "Posh Spice") is a candidate to replace Paula Abdul on American Idol.)

Upon arrival, Beckham’s salary of $6.5 million a year was more than seven times what the Galaxy’s biggest star, Landon Donovan, was being paid and more than twice the payroll for the entire squad. But this deal wasn’t all about money, Beckham insisted. He had set his sights, or so he claimed, on making his mark in the MLS and, by doing so, help to grow the future of soccer in the United States.

But after another English flop at Euro 2008 and another coaching change for the mother country, Beckham found himself back in play internationally, if only as a candidate for a bench spot where he might serve as a late-game offensive catalyst. Even with his diminished skills — he was increasingly a liability defensively, all too likely to draw a critical red or yellow card—Beckham could still change a game with a brilliant free kick or perfectly placed crossing pass.

And just as quickly as Beckham’s American yearning had descended upon him, it began to slip away.

He still insisted that he loved MLS and was eternally grateful to the Galaxy. But AC Milan, where he played on loan following the 2008 MLS season, was a much better place to hone his game and catch the eye of the new coach of England, Fabio Capello. The Galaxy, however, refused to let Beckham remain in Italy at a discount price, so he is stuck playing out the string for at least one last season of MLS. And as he said the other day, he hopes someday to be a team owner in the league.

This backdrop makes for perfect timing for the new book The Beckham Experiment, a chronicle of “how the world’s most famous athlete tried to conquer America” by the estimable Sports Illustrated soccer writer Grant Wahl. The book produced a few headlines, all focused on a harsh assessment of Beckham’s tenure and commitment by his Galaxy teammate Donovan.

If you subscribe to the notion that any publicity is good publicity, Wahl was presumably grateful for the gossip fodder. Still, the sniping between two stars from different soccer universes doesn’t provide any indication of what a fascinating read the Beckham book actually is.

Beckham came to MLS as part of a marketing machine with a vast economic game plan in which the soccer was largely an afterthought. Fans may look at Beckham’s injuries that caused him to miss so many games, his rather lackluster performance when he did play and the fact that the Galaxy managed to miss the playoffs in both his first two seasons and adjudge the experiment a failure. Compound all that with his desire to now jump ship and it’s a combustible failure. And that is the verdict Beckham hears—and rather loudly—when MLS diehards, including Galaxy fans, boo and taunt him at home games.

Another bottom line, however, indicates that this second coming—Brazilian star Pele’s arrival in the 1970s to play for the New York Cosmos in the old North American Soccer League was the first — has actually been a mega-success. Beckham’s American venture has provided a bonanza for his own empire, the league and the Galaxy. More than 250,000 Beckham Galaxy shirts were sold before his arrival and he spiked ticket sales wherever he played (or at least wherever he went, since he missed so many games with an ankle injury that first season).

So on the field, not so good. Off the field, very good. Perhaps the tiebreaking judgment on the Beckham experiment should be the one about which he made the biggest fuss, the future of soccer in America. And about the best that can be said there regarding Beckham is that he will probably leave the game here no worse than he found it (which is considerably less than I would say about Pele when he graced our shores three decades ago). Becks will someday be a footnote in the league history, but little more.

The truth is that the United States may not have a rich soccer culture. But it does have an extraordinarily rich soccer sub-culture. I spent Wednesday afternoon at Nevada Smiths, a pub in New York City where the denizens of that sub-culture flocked to see the United States play a critical World Cup qualifier against Mexico. It was a complete scrum inside, hotter than it was on the field in Mexico City, and the hundreds of patrons cheered, chanted, sang and exchanged friendly insults with the sizeable contingent of Mexico fans. There was even some inevitable shoving between sides when the U.S. team went down to defeat 2-1.

Indeed soccer in America is alive and kicking. One could even say it’s thriving—but in many small places and in many small ways. When Beckham finally makes good his escape to Italy, he won’t be missed at all.

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