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Oct 29, 2007

First season for Beckham a mixed bag

When the Los Angeles Galaxy signed David Beckham last January, it was with the expectation that the law of supply and demand would conquer all, and take Major League Soccer to new economic and competitive heights. What MLS and AEG, the Galaxy's owners, didn't count on was that a different edict, Murphy's Law, would end up trumping their best-laid plans.

Talk about a nightmare scenario -- it's fair to say that little went right in Beckham's maiden season in MLS. He arrived injured, was injured some more, and stayed that way for almost the entire campaign. As for the Galaxy, the self-proclaimed "jewel of MLS" missed the playoffs for the second consecutive season, rendering Beckham a playoff spectator instead of the potential hero that the league hoped for so desperately.

But even with these disappointments, the Beckham experiment is not one that can be easily tagged as a success or a failure. Even when you break down the various areas of his potential impact, there are pluses and minuses to be found, and the reality is that the Englishman's journey in America is ongoing, with (hopefully) plenty of chapters still to be written.

Off-field impact

If the sole reason for bringing Beckham to MLS was to raise the league's profile, then on that count, the move was wildly successful. The league garnered more media attention, both internationally and domestically, than at any other time in its history. In the stands, Beckham's impact was also felt. The Englishman cranked up season ticket sales at home, and on the few occasions when he actually played on the road, he did so before crowds that in some cases were four times the host team's average.

From a purely economic standpoint, the move fulfilled its promise as well. Galaxy general manager Alexi Lalas has been telling anyone who would listen that L.A. has already recouped its investment on Beckham, with ancillary revenue streams like jersey sales and end-of-season tours increasing L.A.'s bottom line.

While such news will be a comfort to those worried that MLS is merely the second coming of the NASL, there are some longer-term considerations to think about. Will the league continue to benefit from Beckham's presence next year or will the novelty wear off? And how much anger (or worse, apathy) will there be among fans who in some cases were forced to buy four games' worth of tickets for just a glimpse of Beckham-mania, only to get no glimpse at all?

The answer to both questions depends on if the league and its teams can better manage expectations. Granted, it was not Beckham's fault that he got injured. However, when you have a unique opportunity to win over new fans, selling them a ticket on the premise they will get to see the premier player in the league, and then responding with a shrug of the shoulders and a "These things happen," kind of attitude when he doesn't play is no way to add to your fan base. Should fans have received straight-up refunds? No. But giving them a reason to come back in the form of discounts on tickets or merchandise would have sent a better message.

Another way to mitigate this problem is for those teams that still have open Designated Player spots to ante up and use them. More high-profile players will allow the league to move away from the all-or-nothing marketing campaign that accompanied Beckham's first season in MLS, and leave the league less vulnerable to the vagaries of things like injuries and international call-ups.

On-field impact

Beckham's numbers are sobering no matter how you slice them: 348 minutes played, one goal (in the SuperLiga no less), three assists. So his first season in MLS deserves a grade of "F," right? More like an incomplete.

"The poor guy has been injured since he arrived," Galaxy head coach Frank Yallop said about Beckham. "We've not even seen David yet, and that's been frustrating for everybody, including himself."

What will give hope to fans of both the Galaxy and Beckham is that he did make L.A. a better team during his brief time on the field. Yes, the team did embark on a seven-game unbeaten streak without him. And in the season-ending loss to Chicago his wayward pass to Cuauhtémoc Blanco began the sequence which ended in John Thorrington's game winner; a strike that ended the Galaxy's playoff hopes. But Beckham's long-range passing is still sharp, and it remains a key attacking weapon for L.A. as the Galaxy move forward. If they can somehow improve the supporting cast around their high-priced midfielder, especially up front, then his ability will pay even bigger dividends.

Intangibles

For a league that has seen such high-priced and unmotivated flops as Lothar Matthaus and Luis Hernandez, the attitude that Beckham displayed was pure class, as he showed an immense desire to help his team on the field. The irony is that Beckham's good intentions contributed to his downfall, in that he felt compelled to declare himself fit when he really wasn't, which in part led to further injury. The good news is that L.A. is now wiser for that experience, and is better positioned to maximize Beckham's competitive instincts.

"We're frustrated as a club that we haven't had [Beckham] on the field," Yallop said. "But I think if you look at the time that he did play, I think he showed a great commitment and desire and fight and scrap; he had a couple of shoving matches with [opposing] players. He's not here for a holiday. He came here to do well and win."

Beckham also proved to be an asset in the locker room, where he went out of his way to fit in with the team without appearing to big-time anyone. That's a process that appears set to continue with the Galaxy's postseason tours. Yes, these are chances to cash in on Beckham the brand, but they also represent an opportunity for Beckham the player to set down deeper roots within the team.

Future

The knee-jerk reaction is that 2008 can't be any worse for Beckham than 2007 was, but the reality is that, like this season, a similar year is just another major injury away. That Beckham will come into training camp fully healed from this year's ailments seems certain. But were this season's maladies a one-off, or were they the first signs that Beckham's body is beginning to betray him? If you're a fan of MLS, you'll be praying that the former assertion is what proves to be true, and that Murphy's Law will go on vacation next season.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com.