Fresh start for the Galaxy under Gullit
CARSON, Calif. -- It's not easy to balance putting on a good show and trying to avoid becoming a circus.
The Los Angeles Galaxy found themselves in that delicate position during their recent tour of Australia and New Zealand.
"We could have gone on a barnstorming tour and we could have played all over the world: South America, Europe, Mexico, Dubai," said Tom Payne, the Galaxy's assistant general manager. "We could have played anywhere we wanted."
The crowd in Sydney certainly didn't want to miss the chance to see Beckham -- over 80,000 showed up at Telstra Stadium to see him play. Ostensibly, they were there to see the Galaxy play Sydney FC, but few were deluded as to the main draw.
"To have 80,000 people there to watch an exhibition game against a team that hasn't played a meaningful game in over a month and a half, I thought that was pretty remarkable," said Galaxy midfielder Chris Klein, who quickly added, "I know they're all there to see David Beckham."
That's why the Galaxy's contract for the exhibitions included a rider that Beckham would play for at least 55 minutes. The renowned midfielder played for the entire match in both games and both hosts and visitors deemed the exhibitions a success.
"He transcends the sport more than anyone you could ever imagine," said Payne of Beckham's appeal even in countries where soccer struggles for recognition.
The Galaxy lost their game versus Sydney FC, 5-3, then traveled to New Zealand, where they defeated Wellington Phoenix, 4-1.
"People think of soccer as a second sport in the United States, but when you think of Australia and New Zealand, rarely do you think of soccer," Klein said. "Obviously, the status of any sport gets skewed a little bit when you've got David Beckham walking around the field."
In terms of buzz and media coverage, there's no doubt that the Beckham visit gave the sport's profile a boost in those countries. The A-League players welcomed the exposure the Major League Soccer team helped bring.
"The guys on the teams over there, they talk about it as a growing sport, much like our league here in MLS," Klein said.
What the Galaxy themselves got out of the experience, besides the obvious publicity, started with the chance to get to know their new coach, Ruud Gullit, a little better.
"It was a way for Ruud to get a good sense of the team," defender Chris Albright said. "We got a small impression of what he's going to be like. His training sessions were great. He was nothing but positive with all of the guys."
It was probably a good thing that Gullit was in the mood to keep spirits up, because the Galaxy players were at less than top form.
"It was kind of tough for guys, because this was a situation where we were off for a month after a really long season," said Klein. "To come in and be in the type of form where you would like to impress a new coach was difficult."
The trip was too short for Gullit to implement major changes, but it could have given him an idea of where those adjustments need to be made.
"Ruud's going to bring new things," Klein said. "He hinted at some changes that he'd like to make in the way that we do things and the way a club should operate."
There's no doubt that it will take some work to establish the Galaxy's credibility on the world stage. The team struggled throughout the regular season and despite a late rally that brought the squad into contention, failed to make the playoffs.
"Our record spoke for itself this year and that's not something that the Galaxy want to portray, both from an ownership standpoint all the way down to the guys on the field," Albright said. "We were extremely disappointed."
The problem was that for all those people who only noticed the Galaxy after the David Beckham signing, there wasn't much going on to contradict the accusations that they were a "pub team", as some in the British press termed them at a particular low point.
Klein understood that the past season left the team with much to prove. The reprieve some may have granted the squad due to Beckham's extended injury is only a temporary one.
"If this team doesn't perform on the field, including David [Beckham], then it does become a sideshow," said Klein. "It does become about David going out there and smiling and doing all that stuff."
During the two games, even as out of form as the players were, there were some signs of hope that the Galaxy could emerge from their recent stumbles in the spotlight.
"The biggest thing that I took away from all of this was seeing a healthy David and what he brings to our team," said Klein.
Though affected by a bronchitis infection he picked up before the trip, Beckham bent in a signature free-kick goal and was instrumental on other plays that led to scoring opportunities in both matches.
"He draws a lot of attention from all the teams, so it frees up space for guys like Landon [Donovan]," Albright explained. "Obviously, his service speaks for itself."
As players adjusted to the dimension that Beckham added on the field, they also recognized that their contributions were vital in their own way.
"We need David Beckham to be healthy," Klein said, " but we also need other players on the team, guys like myself and Landon, but also guys like Troy Roberts and Mike Randolph and others to really bring everything that we have next year."
With Gullit on board, Beckham healthy and the rest of the team pitching in, the Galaxy could fulfill the promise that was only shown fitfully this season.
The anticipation is building among the players.
"We are looking forward to winning on the field first and foremost, and all that attention and all the other adoration for being a player on the Galaxy will then follow suit," Albright said.
Andrea Canales covers MLS and women's college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She also writes for soccer365.com and contributes to a blog, Sideline Views. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.