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Jul 8, 2009

Questions raised about the validity of criticism directed at Beckham

Rarely does a soccer book in the United States get the high-profile "excerpt" treatment. Then again, David Beckham qualifies as the rarest of soccer properties, one who can actually make America at large turn its head and notice. Usually that would be a good thing -- unless the country's second-most-recognized soccer name is pulling back the curtain on an imperfect marriage between Beckham and his less regal, lesser heeled teammates. We're learning more about Major League Soccer's combustible Beckham experiment thanks to a book due out next week by Sports Illustrated writer Grant Wahl. He was embedded with the Galaxy in 2007 as the Beckham tsunami enveloped a once-placid Home Depot Center. "The Beckham Experiment," scheduled for a July 14 release, may further snag the trouser legs on Galaxy ownership efforts at spinning financial and media gold from the former England captain's iconic status. Excerpts published last week on SI.com included biting criticism from Landon Donovan, who was sometimes less than complimentary of Beckham as a teammate and leader. In the book, due out two days before Beckham makes his likely 2009 debut in a match at Red Bull New York, Donovan and other Galaxy players question Beckham's commitment. Additionally, the book details clumsy efforts to placate the Beckham camp's desire that he immediately be named captain upon his ballyhooed 2007 arrival. And the loopy circumstances are revealed surrounding the organization's introduction of Ruud Gullit as manager. Galaxy staffers received advanced copies of the book earlier this week, but players generally aren't commenting yet. Some of them will surely be on the spot Thursday during a news conference scheduled to discus this week's "SuperClasico," the L.A. Galaxy-Chivas USA contest. Several members of the 2007 or 2008 Galaxy who have moved on have been reluctant to talk about the book or the excerpts. San Jose manager Frank Yallop, who was in charge of the Galaxy in 2007, has declined to discuss it. So has Earthquakes' midfielder Brandon McDonald, who had a relatively close relationship with Beckham when they shared the Galaxy locker room. McDonald declined through a team spokesman to comment on the book or the excerpts.

Donovan's response
Landon Donovan isn't backing down from what he said about David Beckham's performance as a teammate last season with the Los Angeles Galaxy. But he does regret that he didn't go to Beckham with his concerns first, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Alexi Lalas, the Galaxy's GM at the time, also declined to be interviewed, preferring to wait until he reads the entire book. "The Beckham Experiment" may serve as some degree of vindication for Lalas, who seemed to be out of the loop on some of the most calamitous of ownership choices, according to Wahl. Parts of the book may be written off as sausage-making inside of AEG's dysfunctional management structure, some of which has since been dismantled. But it's not all going to be water under the bridge as Beckham rejoins MLS this weekend and begins training with the Galaxy next week. Perhaps this will come out in the book, too, but not everyone who played with Beckham questioned his leadership or his ability to be a good teammate. Kyle Martino, a current ESPN analyst who played with the Galaxy in 2007, said the former England captain "showed tremendous commitment to the team in the time I was there. "He was traveling a bunch and being pulled in all different directions, but he was showing up and playing hurt," Martino said. Martino retired after the 2007 season, so he wasn't around during the 2008 season, when the Beckham-Donovan relationship apparently began to sour and when other players began to question Beckham's ongoing commitment. But, in general, Martino called Beckham a model teammate and person during their time together. "I was amazed at how humble he was," Martino said. "For a guy who has accomplished so much in his profession and in his life, he held himself in a way that made everyone feel like he was just another guy in the locker room." Martino said he was surprised by the excerpts regarding a team dinner early in Beckham's Galaxy days. He said criticism of Beckham for not picking up the check was misplaced, describing Beckham as a shy guy who thoroughly enjoyed something all too rare in Europe: a shared, congenial meal with teammates outside a team structure. "Knowing his personality, he didn't want to come across as the guy who was a big-timer and didn't want to make a big deal of fact that he was the guy at the table with all the money," said Martino, who was at the team meal. One current Galaxy player did speak on the record, as veteran midfielder Chris Klein told Scott Wolf of the Los Angeles Daily News that some of the book's revelations and content might need to be hashed out behind locker room doors once the longtime England international arrives. "Possibly [we will need to discuss it]," Klein told Wolf late last week. "I don't know exactly what will happen. But I would have to wait for when the whole book comes out." In the book, Klein, who is well liked and supremely respected in MLS player circles, wonders if Beckham's ability to lead was lost in translation in a less familiar MLS environment. Klein said he needs the see the book to determine if the contexts of his quotes are fairly represented. As for some of Donovan's comments in the book, there can be little quibbling with context in his most stinging criticisms of Beckham. Donovan said Beckham was initially engaged and committed, but believed things changed in 2008 after Gullit was dismissed. The injuries and disappointment of it all seemed to galvanize and dissolve Beckham's commitment. "He just flipped a switch and said, 'Uh-huh, I'm not doing it anymore.' I can't think of another guy where I'd say he wasn't a good team-mate, he didn't give everything through all this, he didn't still care. But with [Beckham], I'd say no, he wasn't committed," Donovan said in the book. Such honesty is not out of character for Donovan, someone known as a stand-up sort who has called out himself and teammates in the past for subpar performance. He's one of the best in the sport about providing thoughtful answers to media queries -- as opposed to regurgitating bromides and truisms. Sometimes the truth stings, but Donovan has always been willing to deliver it. One current MLS GM (who asked not to be identified) certainly sees the looming danger of further locker room toxicity. On the other hand, the GM wondered if some of the examples that ostensibly made Beckham a less perfect teammate were perhaps a little stretched. For instance, the book notes some consternation over Beckham's absence in Houston for a big match late last year. The Galaxy faced playoff elimination, but Beckham was suspended due to an accumulation of yellow cards and didn't travel. The GM said suspended players usually do not travel on road trips. "I guess you could say it was a big match and maybe he should have been there for leadership and support," the GM said. "But there are a lot of extra distractions and security concerns when Beckham is around. You could argue that it was better, competitively, for the team if he wasn't there." One MLS player, who asked not to be identified, had several friends inside the Galaxy locker room last year and said concerns were quietly expressed throughout the summer and fall. He didn't find Donovan's comments surprising at all, although he wondered how many of the issues could be pinned to Beckham's array of handlers. "From what I understand, he was great about his commitment on the field," the MLS player said. "But there were a lot of non-soccer people around him who were only concerned about the David Beckham brand, and not necessarily about the Galaxy. Even if the players in the locker understand that, it's tough when you're not winning."

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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