David Beckham's L.A. Galaxy plays Salt Lake for the MLS Cup at Qwest Field on Sunday. In his third MLS season, Beckham, an international star, has dealt with criticism from a teammate and from the fans, but he's not buckling. He's familiar with the idea that any publicity is good publicity.
When David Beckham made his midsummer return to Los Angeles he understood the mess awaiting him. He knew he was coming back to a team desperate for answers.
He knew he had to repair his relationship with the Galaxy fans and with his team’s leading scorer, Landon Donovan.
The fans felt he bailed on them last season when the team went nowhere and Beckham went on loan to A.C. Milan. And in Grant Wahl’s book, “The Beckham Experiment,” Donovan questioned Beckham’s dedication to the team.
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In a one-on-one interview Thursday night in a meeting room of a downtown hotel, Beckham, gracious and relaxed, wearing a blue sports coat and dress shirt, talked about the turbulence and the turnaround he has experienced in his third MLS season.
“Without a doubt I knew that there was going to be a meeting once I arrived back in Los Angeles,” Beckham said, wearing a protective boot on his right foot, tender from a recent bone bruise. “And, rightly enough, there actually was a meeting the day I arrive in L.A. and we got it out of the way. I said my feelings to him [Donovan] at the time.
“It got sorted out, literally the day I arrived back. Landon apologized and said he shouldn’t have said it. Then we swept it under the carpet and moved on. Landon’s a great player and a great person and he’s showed it this year.”
There may not be a bigger name, or more recognizable face in the sports world than Beckham’s. His arrival in MLS was supposed to give the league more credibility, more exposure. But was this the kind of buzz the league really wanted? Was this more distraction than attraction?
“This is the first time we’ve ever had anything like that,” MLS Commissioner Don Garber said Thursday when asked about the Beckham-Donovan dust-up. “It didn’t disturb me at all. If anything I was surprised a bit that it garnered the attention that it did.
“I kind of put that in the big boy problem category. The fact that you could have locker room issues is part of what happens in every major league. We’ve had them in the past here, but nobody cared. Now we do and it’s headlines around the world when we have it.”
Beckham said he puts the brouhaha in the all-publicity-is-good-publicity department.
“Something like this,” he said, “well you need the exposure to the league and the exposure to the sport and this definitely brought a little of that.”
After addressing his differences with Donovan, Beckham won back the hearts of Los Angeles’ soccer fans by doing what he does, bending dangerous services into the box, leading the team through the teeth of the regular season, past the playoffs and into Sunday’s MLS Cup against Real Salt Lake, at Qwest Field.
They jeered him heartily at Home Depot Center when he first returned this summer, but he got standing ovations as the Galaxy got past Chivas USA and Houston on its way to Seattle.
Beckham has survived the melodrama. He has succeeded in another venue, in another time in his career.
“It was hostile when I first came back this year and I knew it would be,” Beckham said. “I was kind of looking forward to it because I’m able to respond under a little bit of pressure.”
Beckham not only is a superstar, he is a survivor. He has grown accustomed to the tabloid life, to the people who question his motives for everything from his hairstyle, to his tattoos, to his wardrobe.
In his first two summers playing in the States, when the Galaxy foundered, many people questioned Beckham’s decision to come to Los Angeles.
“People came up to me after my first few months and after my first year here and asked me if I regretted my decision to come here and play,” said Beckham, who will start in the Galaxy’s central midfield. “And they still ask me the same question now. And I’ve always said, ‘No I don’t.’
“I’m still enjoying playing here. I think you always go through difficult times, in life, in your work and with people and it’s about how you handle yourself. I’ve always tried to handle myself in the right way, which is playing soccer and working hard. Sometimes that’s good enough for people and sometimes it’s not.”
Beckham, who has 115 caps for England, cares enough about the Galaxy that he passed on a chance to play for England in a friendly match in Doha, Qatar against Brazil last week, choosing to play in the MLS semifinal against Houston.
“David’s meant a lot for Major League Soccer,” Garber said. “He clearly is one of the key factors that has elevated Major League Soccer to where it is today, which is a relevant and important professional sports league in the minds of the people who care about our game.
“I don’t believe we’d have the awareness we have, the visibility we have or the international following we’ve had, or the international credibility that we have, had we not been able to sign David in 2007.”
There is always the thought in some people’s minds that European stars coming to the States to play soccer are on the slippery slope toward the end of their careers. That the MLS experience is a paid holiday in the twilight years.
But players like Beckham and Sounders FC’s Freddie Ljungberg and Kasey Keller brought life to the league. And they’ve shown they still have life in their games.
“I think there’s times, especially in the mornings, when you’re aching a little bit more,” Beckham, 34, said. “But I feel as fresh as I did when I was 24. And I’m still enjoying my soccer. I don’t ever want to be seen as that way [on holiday].
“I came over here when I was 32 and that’s still quite young for a soccer player. I still work as hard as I did when I was 24. I still practice as many free kicks and try to do my best. My determination and mentality haven’t changed at all in the years.”
Beckham, who won the treble — European League, English Premiership and FA Cup — with Manchester United in 1999, was asked where the MLS Cup fits in his professional bucket list.
“I’ve been lucky to play with some of the best players and win some of the biggest trophies in my sport and it never gets old,” he said. “When we won the treble, [manager] Sir Alex Ferguson was asked, ‘Where do you go from here?’ He answered that we do it again.
“That was the mentality that was always put into me. You never don’t enjoy winning trophies and being successful and reaching finals. But we’re also very proud to be in the position we’re in right now.”
The storm has passed. The mess has been addressed. David Beckham is doing what he came to Los Angeles and to Major League Soccer to do.
Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or firstname.lastname@example.org.