It all started so badly.
David Beckham’s arrival in the United States was an immediate collision of the best and worst of the Beckham-verse. Beckham-the-marketing-force-of-nature arrived in the United States in 2007, in the type of rollout one normally associates with a blockbuster film. The problem was that Beckham-the-footballer was not ready to actually play football on arrival. An ankle injury hobbled the latter version of Beckham at the expense of the formers’ publicity and goodwill tour. Beckham picked up his injury being Beckham-the-footballer at his absolute best, giving his all for club and country. Beckham-the-footballer had a storied final season at Real Madrid, escaping from manager-imposed exile to lead the side to a La Liga comeback clinched on the last day of the season. Even though this admirable David Beckham was the one carrying the knock into his debut season with LA Galaxy, Beckham-the-marketing-force-of-nature had taken over and decided that he could drag his alter ego through that first season. Beckham-the-marketing-force-of-nature spent the first two seasons of his MLS career as Beckham-the-footballer’s internal Fabio Capello, banishing the footballer Beckham to the sidelines while trying to prove he was no longer driving the ship. But the real Beckham, the one that people love enough to sustain his media icon alter ego in the first place, could only be kept on the sidelines for so long. Not even the excesses of Beckham’s own personality could keep his strengths down forever.
By the time that both Frank Yallop and Ruud Gullit had come and gone from the manager’s seat in Los Angeles, the “Beckham Experiment”, as Grant Wahl famously tabbed it, seemed adrift. Bruce Arena’s arrival meant that the team had turned the keys to the franchise over to probably the single most competent person you could choose to run an MLS club. But LA Galaxy’s choice meant Team Beckham was frozen out of its attempts to make the entire Galaxy franchise a top-to-bottom extension of his brand. When Beckham went off to AC Milan on loan, it looked like the entire Beckham in America story might be over and pronounced by all as a flop. Albeit a very profitable one.
Then, over time, America got to see why so many people love David Beckham.
David Beckham came to America as a man who had everything. Eventually, he seems to have realised that to succeed in America he was going to have to make hard choices as to what he was really about. How many star athletes over the years would never make hard choices, or even let the necessity of those choices enter their consciousness? Beckham recognised he had to make choices and he made them. By and large, he made them correctly, too (there were a couple of moments where he couldn’t help himself, but we’ve all reached for more good times in life than we probably should have occasionally. If you haven’t, I highly recommend doing so). Beckham has been far less a brand and far more a footballer the last two to three seasons, and, in the buildup to his second consecutive MLS Cup Final (and third in four years), Beckham-the-footballer’s legacy in the league’s history is now positively secured.
When Beckham came to America, he said he wanted to compete for and win trophies. He also said he wanted to be part of the ownership structure of the league when he retires. Two years into his time Stateside, no one believed him on either count. As of right now it looks like he is right on target for everything he set out to do. MLS Cup? Check. Higher profile for the league? Check. Ownership in MLS? He seems pretty firm in saying its what he wants. Let us, based on his previous track record on fulfilling his promises, give him a preemptive check on that one too. Why not? If you are David Beckham, your family loves living in America, you need to do something with your time, and all you really know is football, so why wouldn’t you buy an MLS club?
The man who no one was sure was interested when he arrived on our shores has turned us around completely. Even though he has announced he is leaving LA, there is speculation that it is not for China, Australia or PSG, but maybe New York Red Bulls. With Victoria’s fashion career taking off, a team being rebuilt by Gerard Houllier, and a chance to hang with Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill in NYC, it seems as plausible a rumour as any other. Just the idea that people think it’s a good fake rumour reveals how far back from the depths Beckham’s relationship with the league and the American public has come.
Beckham has given the league a lot over these years. He shone a spotlight on the more amateurish elements of MLS (player accommodations, plastic pitches, officiating) and hastened reforms that otherwise would have likely taken much longer. He has given the league negotiating experience with Real Madrid, the FA, and AC Milan, and those iterative experiences have been valuable bargaining experience for a growing league that owns all of its clubs’ players. Beckham’s determination to come at the age that he did has made it more fashionable for other players to finish their careers in MLS before they were well and truly washed up. Perhaps there was no greater example of this then when Landon Donovan, Robbie Keane, and Thierry Henry all played in the Premier League during the offseason window last year. Beckham also brought in money… lots and lots of money. For a league that considered folding at the beginning of the century, the money, while boring, is pretty huge.
But Beckham’s effect on the league is not the same thing as the story of David Beckham’s time at LA Galaxy. Beckham’s story will be remembered mostly for being a quintessentially American narrative, similar to his famous friend Tom Cruise’s film Far and Away. The Beckhams came to America seeking a new challenge, found it more difficult to pull off than they initially thought, and then doubled-down and fought hard until they worked their way to redemption and success. Sure, they were always wealthy and famous the whole time, but so what? What counts in the hearts and minds of most Americans is that the Beckhams had ambitions that required risk and hard work, they ran those risks and they got their rewards. Despite the underwear ads, Pepsi commercials and what-not, the guy that Sir Alex Ferguson thought had left the spirit of David Beckham long ago is still in there. Ferguson, Capello, America: all three had long ago believed that Beckham-the-marketing-force-of-nature had long ago killed Beckham-the-footballer. All of them were wrong. What Beckham-the-footballer had to learn about being successful over here was that the more he showed America how wrong we were about who he is the more we wanted to root for him. Forget the money, forget the profile for the league, forget the trophies and forget the future of soccer in America because of the Beckham years. What a great story, and what a great time we had watching it unfold.
Thanks Becks, and many happy returns, wherever you may land next.
Steven Maloney writes about football and politics. He also holds a PhD in Political Theory from the University of Maryland and is a political science lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. You can follow him on twitter here.