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Mar 4, 2009

Even in parting, Becks never bends toward boring

How horribly disappointing it would have been to see the David Beckham dalliance with MLS wind down quietly, settling softly with some boring, routine and principled conclusion.

Would a season of "24" wrap up as Jack Bauer noshes a peaceful sushi lunch while bad guys menace forth? Would "Top Chef" finish with a modest ham-on-whole-wheat challenge? Would a brilliant hedge-fund run be complete without salacious scandal?

Nope. The minute news of Beckham's impending arrival broke in January 2007, his surprisingly unlovely dance across the deck of the Good Ship MLS was always destined for a show-stopping finish -- one way or the other.

He was never going to leave with mere happy handshakes and a little commemorative Galaxy pin.

Word is out that his days in L.A. are numbered, the finer points of his escape from Planet Galaxy still spilling out. But this is no devil-in-the-details case. So long as the price is somewhere in the ballpark of the $10-15 million first reported by the L.A. Times -- the balance split between AC Milan and Beckham himself -- then American soccer did fine financially in the whole discombobulated deal.

And by the way, MLS was absolutely correct to request such a price. Phooey on the snobbish and elitist sentiment that MLS should have given away Beckham for something less than full value simply because all things European soccer are infinitely more important than anything occurring here. That may or may not be true, but that's not the point. It's just business. The league and the Galaxy were justified in valuing the Beckham factor like any other commodity.

So it seems he'll remain at AC Milan for now, finishing the Serie A campaign before returning to sunny SoCal on July 15 as the transfer window opens. That part is simple enough. But hold on to your fedora, for it gets weird from there.

In the end, all parties decided that Beckham should return to L.A. -- kind of. He should be a Galaxy midfielder once again -- sort of. He should reign majestically anew at the Home Depot Center, hammering crosses from the right and pouring his heart and soul into the enterprise -- so long as the HDC wireless is working and he can check the AC Milan blogs at halftime.

He'll miss half the MLS season, and then hurry happily to the first plane out of LAX at the season's conclusion this fall. How's that for commitment to the cause?

How did we arrive at this unsatisfying conclusion? The sides haggled for weeks, with participant parties and sundry media voices engaged in tedious degrees of spin, posturing, positioning, disinformation, gamesmanship and good old-fashioned guesswork. Beckham said his peace, which amounted to an ode to the San Siro so sticky that Shakespeare himself would turn FieldTurf green with envy:

"Shall I compare thee to a summer's day, Rossoneri?

"Thou art more lovely and more temperate … than the smog-filtered sunlight washing over blue-collar Carson by morning's light."

In the end, the settlement landed on a deal that can sate Beckham's impassioned pleas and still make financial sense for MLS -- even if it does leave an unpleasant aftertaste with the 14-year-old league. There can be no question that Beckham did, in many ways, exactly what he was imported to do. Long story short: The former England captain raised awareness of MLS, globally and domestically, as no other mortal could. By accessing previously unavailable channels into mainstream America, his presence substantially ginned up the league's brand equity.

Before 2007, the deciders at "Access Hollywood," "Entertainment Tonight," US Magazine, etc., could not have told you what "MLS" was if you spotted them the "Major" the "League" and the "Soccer." But they sure discovered it once the pop icon and his Poshy wife Victoria clambered noisily aboard.

On the field, aside from a couple of nifty free kicks and a thin index of above-average matches, Becks never truly distinguished himself. What does that say about the quality of MLS and where it resides along the global soccer continuum? Well, that's a debate for the blogs, message boards and soccer's scattered chattering fans -- some of whom commented liberally on Beckham's days in MLS even if they couldn't find a U.S. soccer stadium with a GPS unit and a veteran goalkeeper sitting in the passenger seat.

True, Beckham's right boot only infrequently cranked the "Wow" meter to 11. But that doesn't change the fact that he amplified league value. Think MLS could ask for $40 million in expansion fees today if Beckham hadn't ever wiggled his tattooed body into a Galaxy uniform? Doubtful.

Think Beckham's devilishly handsome presence elevated sponsorship deals and media rights fees across the league? You bet your $44.99 David Beckham/Galaxy jersey he did.

Overall attendance isn't likely to suffer, although that has more to do with Seattle's spectacular launch. Big crowds seemingly destined for Qwest Field should mitigate the slight overall decline attached to Beckham's departure.

But attendance is only part of the financial equation. Sponsorship agreements and TV- and radio-rights deals now need to be revalued. And as everyone with a 401(k), a mortgage or thoughts of taking a job at Sonic knows, the economy ain't doing so good. Suffice to say, it's not a great time for MLS to revisit these arrangements.

His previous contributions can hardly be challenged, but this rather smelly conclusion will leave a bruise in terms of PR and future income.

And then there is the Galaxy. The poor, beaten-down Galaxy.

Just when it seemed that Bruce Arena was restoring rationality to the Home Depot Center, plotting a sensible course to reverse years of rash and foolish choices, now this.

This could easily be toxic for team chemistry. How can Arena ask 24 players for true commitment, fully aware that some ambitious starter will be sacrificed like a $50 goat when Beckham is finally dragged kicking and screaming toward fulfillment of his contract?

Becks came aboard with promises of virtuous ambassadorship, with ambitions of elevating the sport's profile here. Although it's "mission accomplished" to some degree in the bigger picture, you couldn't blame Galaxy players for seeing things differently. He was ready to be an ambassador, it seems, so long as it was expedient to his whims and needs of the moment.

Beckham the man has every right to want what he wants -- but that doesn't mean the locker room must like it.

And the fans? In fairness to Beckham, much has been bungled along the way, and who could blame the illustrious attacker for pressing the eject button? The aimless hiring of Runaway Ruud Gullit alone is grounds for divorce. Still, most fans won't sympathize with a man ditching a five-year, $32.5 million deal.

And let's not forget about the opposition. FC Dallas' Adrian Serioux tried to break Beckham's leg back in 2007 -- and that was part of the "Howdy Wagon." Can you imagine how 11 guys on the other side are going to treat him now? (And, going back to the team chemistry issue, will Galaxy teammates stick out their necks to protect a teammate just biding his time under confounded contractual obligation?)

It's a mess.

In fact, it's been a mess since day one. But that doesn't mean it hasn't been fun.

No, it's been fascinating. It's been educational. It's been historic. It's been profitable for MLS in terms of exposure and financial returns.

It has never been boring -- not even in its high-profile and rather screwball unraveling.

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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