Galaxy take on an X-factor in Xavier
Back in the glory days of Michael Jordan's NBA career, his Chicago Bulls team featured something of an unusual sidekick for the perennial All-Star. Dennis Rodman was a rebounding machine, but with his tattoos, attitude and ever-changing hair artistry, he quickly became the most memorable presence on the court -- next to MJ.
They were an odd couple -- the classy Air Jordan alongside the Worm, as Rodman was known -- but they were both incredibly athletically gifted players who were able to ignore other distractions in their lives and perform when the game whistle blew.
Perhaps such a partnership was what Abel Xavier had in mind in choosing the Los Angeles Galaxy as the next stop in his career. It could be that Xavier will play a Rodman type of role for David Beckham, the team's incoming superstar.
The similarities between Rodman and Xavier don't cover just the audacious hair grooming but also the gritty effort both players have displayed in games.
The Galaxy could use some bite in their back line to stave off the type of breakdowns the team has experienced this season. The team captain, Landon Donovan, is optimistic.
"I think he'll help us," Donovan said of Xavier. "He'll be a leader. We need a little bit of that in the back."
Optimism is needed in the case of Xavier because, like Rodman, he carries with him a certain amount of infamy.
The Portuguese star was banned from the sport in 2005 after testing positive for anabolic steroids, serving a 12-month suspension.
Of the incident, Galaxy coach Frank Yallop would say only that the issue had been discussed with Xavier and that he was satisfied with the defender's answers.
After serving out his ban, Xavier returned to high-level soccer, playing in England's Premiership for Middlesbrough. In a career that has seen him crisscross the European continent more than a few times, Xavier has played for 12 clubs. Among them are such top names as Benfica, PSV, Liverpool and Roma.
Despite his considerable experience abroad, Xavier initiated contact with the Galaxy.
Yallop agreed that Xavier's interest in the team had been piqued by the signing of Beckham.
"He's one of those guys," Yallop said of the numerous contacts the Galaxy received after the splashy move.
However, a key difference for Yallop was how Xavier cast his move to the U.S. Unlike many agents who argue with the organization that their particular client deserves a Beckham-like contract, Xavier focused on the team's prospects and how he could help.
"He mentions coming here and helping us," Yallop said. "That's what he talks about."
Despite being older than Beckham at 34, Xavier is not bringing mere empty talk to the Galaxy.
He brings a versatility to the squad that opens up various options. Xavier has performed as a right back and a holding midfielder at times. His signing provides cover in all those areas, along with his standard position at center back. Although Yallop would not concede that a starter's spot would be handed over immediately, Xavier is expected to contend for a starting job once he arrives on June 15 (due to transfer restrictions).
Looking back at Xavier's checkered history, certain elements stand out. One doesn't get signed by so many different clubs in so many countries without having something to offer.
Xavier's well-traveled career also suggests that the culture shock of adjustment to MLS probably will be minor. After all, if Xavier could transition successfully from England's Liverpool to Turkey's Galatasaray to Germany's Hannover 96 within two years, he's unlikely to be intimidated by new environments.
What will be key, however, is how Xavier gets along with his teammates. Because of the distances involved in traveling to games, MLS players spend far more time together than teams abroad do. Chemistry issues don't fester long in such a bubble -- they flare up quickly and can have a drastic effect on both an entire team and an individual player's career.
"We've got to take solid, calculated risks at times," Yallop said of the Xavier signing.
If nothing else, the Galaxy can be sure of having landed a player who is willing to do whatever he can to win.
In the famous Euro 2000 match between Portugal and France, Xavier used his hand to block a shot that would have put France in the lead. After France still pulled ahead via the ensuing penalty kick, Xavier led his teammates in chasing and harassing the linesman who flagged the play. Xavier was banned for six months for that action.
Xavier's passion for competition is clear. The Galaxy plainly desire to see that on the field to back up the attacking elements of the team.
"Abel brings immense experience and a wonderful personality to our team," said Galaxy president and general manager Alexi Lalas. "He's a great defender, and we're excited that he's coming to L.A."
To a certain extent, Xavier might have a leg up of familiarity with the team's biggest name already. While Xavier played at Everton and Liverpool, Beckham was in the midst of his tenure with Manchester United, so the two players already have a passing acquaintance. It might help more than anything else that Xavier seems to want to play a supporting role for Beckham's new club.
Yallop saw other elements the two had in common, as well.
"It's the same with David Beckham," Yallop said of Xavier's enthusiasm for the move to Los Angeles. "They cannot wait to get over here and start playing. Obviously, the chance to play with David Beckham is a plus [for Xavier]. It's exciting."
Andrea Canales covers MLS and women's college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She also writes for topdrawersoccer.com, lasoccernews.com, soccer365.com and contributes to a blog, Sideline Views. She can be contacted at email@example.com.