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Mar 16, 2008

Galaxy need Beckham to mentor youthful lineup

FRISCO, Texas -- David Beckham's role this year for the Galaxy is becoming ever clearer. He'll be paid millions and millions of devalued U.S. dollars to strike those pinpoint balls out of midfield -- while playing tutor for a bunch of pro soccer toddlers.

You look at the Galaxy roster these days and there's only one thing to say: Is that it?

It's Beckham, Landon Donovan, Carlos Ruiz, about three or four other guys who truly can be classified as quality professionals and ... well, that's about it. The remainder of the roster is a selection of MLS day laborers. There will be six to eight names on the Galaxy's opening day roster whom even the very best MLS fan will not recognize.

That seems odd, considering the Galaxy's Beckham-infused profile in the domestic soccer scene. Manager Ruud Gullit is preaching patience. But won't the whole project be something of a failed bit if the Galaxy flunks out of the playoffs for a second consecutive season? With half the salary cap gobbled up by a marquee trio, that's a real possibility.

The Galaxy and Beckham, who have already traversed the globe in preseason action, finally played a match stateside. Beckham went a strong 90 minutes Saturday in the scoreless draw against FC Dallas at Pizza Hut Park, a match that was as underwhelming as the Galaxy roster.

It's clear that the Beckham, Donovan and Ruiz must be miracle workers every night out, else this side will go nowhere. The Galaxy's trio of difference-makers -- we'll call them a Galacticos starter kit -- will have to be absolutely spot-on marvelous for Gullit's side.

They probably will be. And yet it may not be enough.

England assistant manager Franco Baldini was in attendance on the cool spring night to assess the man who's famously stuck on 99 caps for his country. Baldini couldn't be too disappointed with what he saw; Beckham is striking the ball as well as ever and his fitness seems adequate for this time of year.

Beckham certainly was not bothered by Baldini's presence.

"No, not one bit," he said. "That's part and parcel of being a player that plays for your national team. You're always being watched by somebody. It comes with the job, really."

But what else comes with the job? Gullit said two or three times in postgame interviews that he expects the elder Galaxy hands to shepherd the younger pups. He needs guys like Beckham, Donovan, Greg Vanney and Chris Klein not only to trap, pass and shoot, but also to counsel, guide and mentor.

"It's OK to play with youngsters," Gullit said. "But you have to have patience."

Patience is fine, of course -- so long as you hurry up about it. If things aren't going well 10 matches into the campaign, surely there will be trouble.

About Beckham specifically, the Galaxy manager said, "He has the experience to guide the young players to another level."

That, also, is all well and good. But was David Beckham, the international sporting brand, the global icon, really brought here to tutor up-and-comers? Not that Beckham probably minds, but it's asking a lot. Brand Beckham has a lot going as it is.

Gullit had his team in a 4-5-1 with Beckham on the right and Donovan on the left in midfield. Presumably, at home, it will look more like the classic Dutch 4-3-3, spinning around a central midfield triangle.

Let's talk about those guys playing in the center. Saturday it was Alvaro Pires sitting behind Josh Tudela and Mike Randolph. Pires may well hold his own, but who can say? He's unproven. And, yes, that's the same Mike Randolph who was at left fullback last year as a rookie. He did pretty well, too.

MLS Primetime Thursday
April 3
New England at Chicago
8 p.m. ET (ESPN2, ESPN Deportes, ESPN360)

San Jose at Los Angeles
10.30 p.m. ET (ESPN2, ESPN Deportes, ESPN360)

Still, has it really come to this for a side starring the world-famous Beckham? Where the options are so distressingly thin in the middle that Gullit is reduced to auditioning young left fullbacks? That's just it. The roster is more or less set. There's no more money to spend.

Given that, is Beckham in his best spot? Can he effectively and consistently patrol the flank while hopscotching the country, dealing with the summer heat, changing time zones, etc.? Again, that's asking a lot. Maybe Frank Yallop had it right when he played Beckham inside.

Perhaps Mr. Sexy Football has something slick up his Dutch sleeve for the regular season, and we'll see Beckham in there yet. Otherwise it will seem strange if the club's best two midfielders -- by a long, long way -- are stuck out wide, stranded while a central core struggles to supply the ball in useful spots.

Beckham set the table Saturday numerous times with swell service off free kicks and corner kicks. Ruiz missed the match, but he'll eat up that service once healthy; 15 goals is a legitimate target this year.

Beckham's passing over distance remains as sharp and stylish as always. Donovan already has the confidence to launch bold runs as Beckham holds the ball in open areas, positive that the English international can deliver the connection. Which is exactly what he did Saturday, with pinpoint accuracy; a couple of wonderful 60-yard balls led to inviting chances.

Alan Gordon made an absolute mess of one after a Beckham-Donovan connection set up the chance.

So, Beckham, Donovan and Ruiz are certainly going to win some matches for the Galaxy. But the margin for error is razor-thin. Beckham could once again be nicked by injury. And Donovan and Ruiz are sure to miss time for World Cup qualifiers.

Beckham did try to put down new whispers that he's not happy with how his American experience is unfolding.

"I've said from the moment I arrived, everything is great here," Beckham said. "Everyone has treated us so well, and not just on the soccer side. On the family side, as well. The children are happy in school here and Victoria is happy in L.A."

Hopefully for all involved, he'll feel the same way after he plays teacher a little while longer.

Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.