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Mar 15, 2008

Galaxy buoyant about Asia despite low attendance

CARSON, Calif. -- The Galaxy returned from their preseason tour of Hawaii and Asia with an official record of two wins, one loss and two draws. Yet because the exhibition matches went to penalty kicks after the teams tied (the Galaxy lost both shootouts), media around the world trumpeted how David Beckham's team lost on three occasions. There was also criticism in some quarters about the commercial aspects of the tour, often comparing the low attendance in some games (only about 11,000 saw the games against Shanghai and South China) unfavorably to Beckham's previous trips to Asia with Manchester United and Real Madrid.

However, Galaxy general manager Alexi Lalas said the tour was successful, deflecting the comparisons to Real Madrid.

"The fans in Asia are a lot more knowledgeable than people give them credit for," Lalas said. "There was a curiosity, certainly, about the Galaxy, but we're not holding ourselves up to be Real Madrid."

When the world's most famous soccer player is a member of a team in a league that is still emerging to world credibility, though, it's easy for many to pick at any deficiencies. The young players on the squad were derided often for their awkward play and wasted chances. Some noted that the harsh appraisals could have a certain benefit, though, simulating the demands of the regular season.

Veteran midfielder Chris Klein pointed out that the crowds on the tour exceeded the attendance of many regular-season matches he had taken part in. "It puts [the rookies] and the rest of us in a situation where we're expected to perform."

Ruud Gullit, the Galaxy's new coach and a former TV commentator, attempted to put the tour and the negative publicity in perspective.

"It has nothing to do with us," Gullit maintained. "We show up and we play our game, and we've played some good games."

Lalas outlined the goals of the tour.

"One, the opportunity to get away from everything in-market and insulate the team a little bit; we have a bunch of young players, new players, and sometimes you need to have that isolation to -- if the word is 'bond,' whatever, sometimes you need that," Lalas said. "Number two, there's an economic aspect to it. We play these games and we are able to then pay for all the interesting and innovative things that we do. And three, we've tried to expand the brand internationally. This is a part of the world that may not know a tremendous amount about the Galaxy or MLS. It's good for us to go there and set up shop and let them see a little of what we're all about."

In addition to corporate events, such as appearances at an adidas store, Beckham and his fellow Galaxy players visited sick children at a local hospital. Although the travel on the Asian tour took a toll on players, many were excited to participate.

"We were able to progress and learn what Ruud is going to be looking for and what style he's going to want to play," Klein said. "And then getting all the new parts that we're going to have working, getting Carlos [Ruiz] healthy and working him in, and having David healthy -- I think all those things are pretty instrumental in helping us progress."

Beckham had a more specific agenda than just helping the Galaxy prepare for their upcoming season. The preseason games were also a chance for the star to improve his game fitness in hopes of regaining a place on the English national team. News of his trademark crosses looking as good as ever prompted Fabio Capello, England's new coach, to send a scout to the U.S. this past week to see whether Beckham was ready to help England in upcoming games. The tour also gave the Galaxy captain, who was injured much of his time with the team last season, a chance to show his leadership qualities both on the field and off.

"This time on tour was good for us to get to know each other, to cooperate, to learn how he [Beckham] plays, and for him to learn how I play," striker Ruiz said. "It's good to work together as a team, all the players who are here. He lets us know that we are all players who can play, who are important to the team, even if there are some that aren't as recognized by the public."

Gullit, though, was willing to criticize specific aspects of the trip, specifically the length.

"It was a little bit too long," the coach said. "Two weeks would have been better, because the traveling was a lot, but we had a good training camp and we did well."

The motivation to go to Asia probably wasn't merely to take advantage of Beckham's popularity there. One of the main corporate sponsors of the Galaxy, Herbalife, which pays for the high-visibility ad logo on the team's jerseys, has launched a major expansion initiative in China, one of the countries affected by the massive publicity generated by the Galaxy on trip.

Although he declined to give specific numbers, Lalas conceded that the Galaxy's Asian tour was financially successful.

"We're certainly happy about that, and we want that to continue -- in order to make that happen, we're going to continue to tour this team," Lalas said. "It makes economic sense, and it makes sense in terms of building our brand and what we're trying to do with the Galaxy, not only domestically but internationally."

Although media reports hinted that Beckham's appeal might be declining, pointing to the attendance numbers as evidence, Klein was still impressed with his teammate's impact.

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"The impact that David has on soccer throughout the world continues to amaze me," Klein said. "The amount of people who follow him and as a result, follow us and follow the Galaxy and associate what he does with soccer here in this country, I think it goes a long way to expanding soccer in the United States."

Lalas accepted that the team was under more scrutiny this season than ever before after failing to make the playoffs even with Beckham on board.

"We've created a situation at the Galaxy where there are heightened expectations, where there is much more pressure than any other place [in MLS]," said Lalas.

That media microscope is not expected to diminish any time soon. Ruiz, who played with the team for three years (2002-05) before rejoining this season, could see a significant change in how the team's preseason play was critiqued.

"Obviously, it's different with David here," Ruiz said. "The Galaxy are now known not only in the United States but also all over the world."

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 soccercanales@yahoo.com.