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Jul 14, 2009

Beckham settles back in with the Galaxy

CARSON, Calif. -- With a new book detailing his often difficult two years in MLS about to be released, David Beckham was just trying to get things back to normal Monday morning, practicing with the Los Angeles Galaxy for the first time since rejoining the team.

Beckham, who had been on loan to Italian powerhouse AC Milan, returned to Los Angeles last Friday. He watched the Galaxy's 1-0 win over Chivas USA with former French star Zinedine Zidane on Saturday night from box seats at the Home Depot Center. Beckham's due to return to the Galaxy lineup Thursday night in New York against the Red Bulls.

For the past several days, Beckham and the rest of the Galaxy players have been dealing with the fallout from the new book by Grant Wahl, "The Beckham Experiment," in which Galaxy and United States national team star Landon Donovan criticizes the effort Beckham put forth at the end of the 2008 season -- particularly during a stretch of games in which the Galaxy's playoff chances evaporated.

Beckham responded to the criticism with jabs of his own, calling it unprofessional for Donovan to take his complaints to the media rather than dealing with the issue in person. He insisted that during his 17 years of playing with some of the world's top teams, his level of commitment had never previously been questioned by a teammate.

Following Monday's practice at the Home Depot Center, Beckham said he and Donovan had spoken about the matter in a conversation that included Galaxy coach and general manager Bruce Arena, but refused to go into details.

"I'm not going to talk about what was said. That was between me, Landon, and the manager. But it's finished. It's over," said Beckham.

Donovan also seemed eager to move on, declining to discuss the meeting and instead preferring to talk about his potential pairing with Beckham in the Galaxy midfield.

"I would say there's not a better two midfielders in MLS, that's for sure. That's going to help us a lot. And if I was an opposing team I wouldn't want to play against us," Donovan said.

Beckham's return to the Galaxy comes at pivotal point in the team's season. After a slow start that included nine ties in 11 games, the Galaxy have won three straight contests by identical 1-0 scores, including Saturday night's win over rival Chivas.

With a positive result against the lowly Red Bulls Thursday night, Los Angeles can further improve its position in the Western Conference standings. A strong finish to the season could give the team its first playoff berth since 2005.

But at least for the time being, the public squabble between the Galaxy's two marquee players continues to be the main talking point surrounding the team. For their part, most Galaxy players have tried to steer clear of the book controversy altogether.

"Fortunately I don't read that many books," joked forward Edson Buddle. "I'm not too focused on that. Getting results is my main focus."

Galaxy veteran Chris Klein similarly downplayed any distractions Beckham's presence might cause within the team.

"I think it'd be different if it were his first time here but we've been with him for two years so a lot of the guys know what it's like and know how to prepare," Klein said. "We're all professionals. We just have to go out and do our business."

For the younger players, however, those who missed out on the media blitz that arrived with Beckham in 2007, there is a sense that something important is happening and that they are fortunate to be a part of it.

"It's going to be a pretty big change and I think that I'm ready for it. I'm just going to treat Beckham as if he's just another teammate," said rookie defender Omar Gonzalez. "I know that I can learn a lot from him because he's been around the block and I think that this will be a great opportunity not only for me but for all the other young guys to see what a pro really is."

At a promotional event Saturday afternoon that marked Beckham's first public appearance since his return, MLS commissioner Don Garber weighed in, spinning the feud between Beckham and Donovan as an ordinary side effect of prominent players trying to coexist on a team. "If you don't know that there are issues in the locker room with star players then you're naive. Those issues exist in every locker room in every sport," said Garber.

Noting that Los Angeles was also home to the well-documented rivalry between NBA teammates Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal, Garber even suggested that the increased attention could be seen as a positive sign.

"The fact that this is happening with us is part of growing up, it's part of the elevation of our league similar to other leagues in professional sports," Garber said.

While Wahl's book calls into question the tactics of Beckham's management team and his talents as a captain, the superstar is generally portrayed as being well-liked by his teammates. As a result, Beckham's return has thus far not affected team chemistry, which is at a high point thanks to the Galaxy's current win streak.

"In the locker room the overall mood is pretty good," said Galaxy assistant coach Cobi Jones. "It's all focused on we've got our third win in a row and we're moving on to New York, let's go for our fourth."

While Beckham has been direct about his plans to leave the Galaxy after the season to return to Europe in preparation for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, he maintains that MLS is still part of his long-term plans.

"I've never said once that I'll be leaving the MLS and going anywhere else," Beckham said. "You know I've had my time in Milan and I'll be hopefully going back there leading up to the World Cup but that's not to say that I'm leaving the MLS and leaving the Galaxy."

With the newest chapter of the Beckham saga unfolding over the remainder of the MLS season, Beckham is philosophical about the Galaxy's lack of success with him on the field and whether it tarnishes his time in MLS.

"On the Galaxy level, it has been disappointing because we haven't made the playoffs and we haven't done what we should have done. Hopefully that will change this season," Beckham said."Success would be obviously to win something, but you know success is always about a bigger picture as well."

Whether or not Beckham's return to the Galaxy will result in the wins he and the rest of the organization crave remains to be seen, but at least for the moment the team seems eager to move past all the distractions and concentrate on what it can control: more positive play on the field.

Andy Firchau is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. He can be reached at a_firchau@yahoo.com.

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