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Beckham and MLS no longer an ideal match

Breaking up is never easy, as we all know.

But neither is staying together for the sake of the kids -- the option that ultimately hurts everyone.

That is precisely what we're left with following the last David Beckham drama, one that spilled out publicly, exposing flaws in the MLS marriage and opening fresh wounds that can't be stitched without significant scarring. It's like Beckham and MLS went through a messy divorce, complete with all the hurt, confounded lawyer fees and R-rated language -- but then begrudgingly decided to stay together.

And all this on Valentine's Day, no less. Ironic, eh?

So now Beckham will apparently retain his Home Depot Center address, with AC Milan and the Galaxy failing to land at an agreeable transfer price. In one sense, the latest Beckham brouhaha is just business as usual in international soccer. Players get bought and sold all the time. Or sometimes, deals fall through when mutual agreement can't be reached on a selling point.

But as the past two years have taught us, nothing is simple or easy when this particular celebrity midfielder is involved. High profile, high maintenance (and sometimes destructive) drama is never far away, and this latest episode is sure to leave everyone feeling a little jilted.

His two-month loan to AC Milan will be just that apparently, a loan, despite his poignant desire to remain at the San Siro. There, inside the storied grounds of a beautiful, fashionable city, Beckham rediscovered his passion for the game, as he told the world recently.

Now marry those sentiments with the awkward moment when he swallows hard and slinks back into the Galaxy locker room, asking to be taken back. "Hey, fellows. I'm home. It's, uh, you know, good to be back?"

Beckham tried hard to wish away the Galaxy and Major League Soccer, but even he couldn't make that happen. The Galaxy deemed Milan's one and only offer as insubstantial, tethering the English international to MLS for at least one more term.

Or so it seems. If there's anything we've learned in the 25 months since Beckham agreed to join the Galaxy and become the league's link with the global soccer aristocracy, it's that nothing is ever impossible. Just when you think you've got the Beckham-Galaxy enterprise figured out, that slippery sucker wiggles and wriggles and turns some unseen corner. Would anybody really be shocked if a deal gets done next week and Becks goes Splits-ville after all?

But let's assume for now that Beckham and all his fabulous tattoos will indeed return in March. What happens then?

We'll have a global soccer luminary returning once again to steer the good ship MLS, a luminary who really doesn't want to be here. Oh, Beckham will say all the right things -- and make no mistake, this charming and pretty man can work a room. Galaxy players and officials will welcome him back, saying all the right things and expressing appreciation and admiration in all the right places. All will be swell in sunny SoCal.

But will it be? You know what they say about the secrets of a household -- that when all the friends wave goodbye from the street and the front door closes, you never really know about someone else's marriage, do you?

There were always whispers of discontent in a poorly assembled Galaxy locker room anyway. After all, this is the ultimate league of "haves" and "have nots," one fellow with a $32.5 million deal, other fellows barely taking in $32.50 a day. None of that is Beckham's fault, of course. But his desire to jump ship can only fertilize any seeds of discontent -- although a locker room recently rebuilt under manager Bruce Arena is surely less toxic than the one assembled haphazardly by former boss Ruud Gullit, who never wanted to be here himself. How's that as a yummy recipe for Dutch Fiasco Stew?

And now what about the fans? And sponsors? Are they as enamored and interested in Beckham? They might be, if only they could be assured that Beckham won't pack up Posh and the kids, wave bye-bye to TomKat and cruise LAX for good this fall.

Yes, the other shoe is set to drop in November, when an out clause in Beckham's deal with MLS will allow him to check out without penalty. At that point, he could move to the San Siro, or anywhere else for that matter, with no transfer fee attached.

That's what made this deal so tricky in the first place for AC Milan. Effectively, Milan officials were negotiating a price not to sign the illustrious midfielder, but to sign him nine months earlier than they could without a price.

The one person who does look good in all this is Don Garber, who set the deadline to terminate the latest melodrama. Friday's date may have seemed arbitrary, but Garber was absolutely correct in assigning it. Practically speaking, sponsors, schedule makers and potential ticket buyers all needed to know if No. 23 would ever wear the Galaxy jersey again. Plus, as long as this theater went on, MLS was hanging out there, reduced to a pinata, a plump and accessible target for anybody passing with a stick.

Beckham was imported because of what he could do for the league. He was to be an ambassador. He said so himself, even as fans around the world quizzically and repeatedly asked, "Why MLS?"

"It's also about being an ambassador for the game here and, hopefully, it is going to encourage other players to come to the States and be part of this because soccer in America can become much bigger," Beckham said.

So can we all agree that Beckham can still hit a sweet ball, but that his "ambassador" skills can use some sprucing up?

For now Beckham has managed a truly remarkable feat. He has managed to emasculate MLS, to reduce it, to make it look something less than "Major" and yet still remain on board. He was bound to expose the league's flaws and foibles by stretching the loan to Milan into a permanent assignment. But now he's done the same without leaving.

On the one hand, Tim Leiweke, CEO of the Galaxy's ownership group, helped MLS save face by standing up to Milan, demanding value for a man who can still draw a crowd and sell a jersey. For a while, it looked like the Galaxy had brought the proverbial knife to a gunfight, as officials at the San Siro called all the shots, walking and talking as if they could do as they pleased.

On the other hand, this whole thing became untenable at the exact destabilizing moment that L.A. agreed to let Beckham hook up with Milan and its dazzling array of stars, setting the stage for Goldenballs to sneak away early from his five-year Galaxy agreement. Arena was right all along when he questioned the wisdom of the move, correctly asking what Leiweke and others were afraid to ask: How does this benefit the Galaxy?

How indeed? And now we're asking something else: How much body work will be required to repair the dents in MLS and the Galaxy?

Everyone surely remembers that gala news conference back in July of 2007 when Beckham and MLS officially embraced. Garber remarked about how he didn't want anyone to think "that Beckham will save soccer in America. It doesn't need saving."

Right-o, commish. But it doesn't need to be kicked around, either, or kicked to the curb like last year's love.

A few more ambassadors like this, and MLS is done for.

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

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