(Andrew H. Walker/Greg Bartram/Getty Images)
Most American sports fans probably missed it, but David Beckham's Los Angeles Galaxy lost again on Saturday (1-0 to Columbus), which in all realistic terms ended the Galaxy's playoff hopes and (combined with Toronto's win at New York) gave L.A. the worst record in MLS (7-12-8) with three regular-season games remaining.
Beckham will almost certainly play just one more MLS game in 2008: the Galaxy's season finale on Oct. 26 at home against FC Dallas. Beckham will miss L.A.'s game against Colorado this Sunday on England national team duty, and he'll miss the Oct. 18 game at Houston on a suspension for accumulated yellow cards. (Cue disappointed fans in Houston, the only MLS city where Beckham has yet to play.)
Nobody in the print media has spent more time around Beckham's team than I have -- I'm writing a book on the first two seasons of the Beckham-era Galaxy -- and there's a fascinating tale to be told about what has gone on behind the scenes during the Beckham Experiment.
From a soccer perspective, Beckham has had an up-and-down year. Before the All-Star Break he played well, creating chances for the Galaxy from his right midfield position and displaying the full-on effort he's known for. Since the All-Star Game, however, Beckham has struggled. He has failed to connect with Landon Donovan and the Galaxy's other scoring threats. He has failed to produce any magic with his renowned free kicks.
And, most surprising of all, his work-rate has declined. Maybe Beckham is gassed from all the travel for MLS games and England games and Olympics visits. Maybe he's just throwing up his hands at the Galaxy's poor personnel decisions and an MLS salary cap that forces him to play alongside some skill-poor teammates making less than $20,000 a year. Maybe it's a combination of all those things.
Yet the most surreal aspect of Beckham's American adventure is this: While Beckham's team has been an undeniable fiasco on the soccer field, there's no arguing that Beckham has been wildly successful as an American celebrity. (Just open the pages of People magazine or turn on Entertainment Tonight and you'll get the idea.)
Rightly or wrongly, the vast majority of the Americans who have embraced David Beckham The Celebrity don't know (and don't care) that David Beckham The Soccer Player is on the worst team in the MLS standings. They don't know (and don't care) that the Galaxy has won only one of its past 15 games, or that it's going to miss the easy-to-make MLS playoffs for the third straight year, or that it hasn't scored on a set-piece (supposedly Beckham's forte) in 23 games.
Is this ignorance, in a perverse way, good for Beckham? Hell yes, considering what's happened to the Galaxy. In fact, if Beckham's advisers anticipated this, it's a stroke of genius on their part. Beckham has a great life here. He loves living with his family in Beverly Hills, he's still making a gazillion dollars and he no longer has to earn his popularity every week on the playing field as he did in Europe.
Beckham can argue that simply by being here he has raised the profiles of the Galaxy and MLS to an entirely new level. And he can point to evidence such as the recent Teen Choice Awards, in which he was chosen the "Choice Male Athlete" of 2008, beating out Tiger Woods, Eli Manning, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James.
Has 2008 been good for the Galaxy? Not so much -- public embarrassment is never fun -- although from a bottom-line perspective L.A. is doing just fine in the Beckham era. Tim Leiweke, the CEO of the Anschutz Entertainment Group, which owns the Galaxy, told me that he recently turned down a $125 million offer for the team. (He refused to specify who had made the offer.)
But Leiweke also said this: "The success of David Beckham will depend on what happens not just off the pitch but on the pitch. If we don't win this will not be a success story. I think we're in the middle of this book, maybe not quite to the middle yet, and this has not been a success. And we acknowledge that. We need to win. For David to be happy and David to have an impact and the Galaxy ultimately to be the kind of team we'd like them to be, we need to win."
Message from the owner: We need to win.
In other words, Leiweke is clearly dissatisfied with the Galaxy's performance, the main reason he forced out coach Ruud Gullit and fired team president Alexi Lalas in August and replaced them with Bruce Arena.
Beckham is now finishing Year Two of a five-year contract. But the relationship between Leiweke and Beckham (and his advisers) will be something to watch closely in the off-season. Could Beckham wake up one day and decide he wants to go back to Europe? Could he ask to go on loan to a team in Europe this winter to help his cause with the England national team?
The fact is that if I were Beckham I would be furious with the Galaxy for failing to build a better team around me in advance of my arrival. Anyone in his position who's human would be. Yet Beckham won't go there yet, at least not publicly. After Saturday's night's loss in Columbus I asked Beckham straight up:
"With Toronto winning tonight the Galaxy has the lowest point total in the league now. Do you wish the Galaxy had done a better job, done more to build a better team around you and Landon over the last couple years?"
Beckham's reply focused less on answering the question than on disputing the premise of the Galaxy being a two-star team: "No, because at the end of the day this team is not just about me and Landon, and the organization is not just about me and Landon. We're in a position at the moment where we're just not getting maybe a little bit of luck. We look at each other in the dressing room, and we want to play for each other. That's the big thing. You want to be sort of proud of the team and proud of the teammates and look at the teammates and think that everyone's giving 110 percent in each game. Sometimes that's happened this year, and sometimes it hasn't.
"So the other questions higher up, it has nothing to do with me. Like I said, it's nothing to do with organizing and preparing the team just around two players."
And that was pretty much the end of any legitimate questions in Beckham's short press conference. On the night the Galaxy's season effectively ended, not a single member of the media from Los Angeles was in the room. The L.A. Times stopped sending a reporter on the road with the Galaxy a long time ago. The Orange County Register doesn't even cover home games anymore.
That's mainly the reflection of a dying newspaper industry and, perhaps, a busy season for L.A. sports with the Dodgers and Angels in the playoffs and college football season in full swing. But it's also a reflection of where the Beckham-era Galaxy remains in the L.A. sports landscape.
In the absence of any L.A. media in the Columbus press conference, it was left to the woman next to me to ask Beckham if he could compare (for the millionth time) soccer in the U.S. to soccer in England.
She was smiling, and (no lie) she was wearing a blue Los Angeles Galaxy Beckham jersey. And, like most Americans, she clearly didn't care that the Galaxy are now the worst team in Major League Soccer. Welcome to Bizarro World.
What's your sense of Beckham's American adventure? Chime in below with your thoughts.