How Beckham Blew It (cont.)
From the start Donovan's primary concern with Beckham had been, What is he really here for? The money? A vacation? Would he care about beating Real Salt Lake when he'd played for Real Madrid? So far in 2008, at least, Donovan was impressed. The Galaxy's 2-2-1 start had been frustrating at times, but Beckham showed real emotion when one of his crosses found Donovan for yet another goal. Producing on the field, Donovan felt, had brought Beckham and his Galaxy teammates closer together. "It's kind of like it's validated why he's here," Donovan said.
The optimism didn't last. After a 3-0 victory in San Jose on June 14, L.A. would go three months without a win, dropping to the bottom of the MLS standings. The hiring of Gullit as coach turned out to be disastrous. Several players said the Galaxy hadn't practiced set pieces during the entire two-month-long preseason, an unfathomable concept for a team that had the world's premier dead-ball specialist (Beckham). In training sessions Gullit almost never spent time on individual technical skills, instead conducting game after game of 11-on-11. Even worse, Donovan observed, on many days Gullit rolled into the Home Depot Center at 9 a.m. and left by 12:30 p.m. (Practice was from 10 to noon.) "A coach should be the first one there and the last one to leave, and it just wasn't the case," Donovan said.
By July 2008, moreover, the L.A. players had seen enough to realize that Beckham might be a good teammate, but he wasn't much of a captain. It was one thing to take part in team events, the Galaxy players felt, but it was another thing to lead, to rally the players during tough times and defend the greater good of the team with the coach and the front office. Donovan noticed several things. For one, when Gullit gave the players an optional practice day, Beckham rarely showed up. ("As the captain you should at least come in and show your face," Donovan said.) What's more, Donovan thought Beckham should address the team about Byrne's role and clear up any confusion. "But he hasn't had anything to say to anybody," Donovan said, shaking his head.
Most of all, Donovan was upset that Beckham had not supported him in front of the team when Gullit had confronted him at halftime of the May 25 game against Kansas City. Donovan had not played deep enough in midfield in the first half, according to Gullit, who angrily challenged him in the locker room. "If I'm the captain and he goes after our best player that way, I would have said, 'Hold on a second, that's not right, this guy is doing everything he can,' " Donovan said. But Beckham had sat stone silent.
The questions about Beckham's leadership didn't come just from Donovan, but also from other players who liked Beckham personally and had shared meals with him on road trips. Veteran defender Greg Vanney noticed that Beckham didn't rally the players during rough stretches and never called team meetings during losing streaks. Vanney also wondered whether Beckham could empathize with a teammate making a five-figure salary and being whipsawed in and out of the lineup by Gullit with no explanation.
"I think he's a great guy, a great father, and a very good soccer player who's special in the qualities he brings to the field," Vanney said, "but he doesn't live in the same world that we live in. That's not his fault, but it's very difficult for him to relate to and understand the majority of the players on the team, how we're treated by the coach. Maybe it's not in his best personal interest to take a stance, but it's a stance he should take because he's the leader of our group." Beckham was indeed more vocal in representing the players at private meetings with Gullit, sources close to Beckham argued, but Vanney thought his teammates needed to be made aware of that, since he saw no evidence of the coach's changed behavior.
The moment that sealed Beckham's "good teammate, bad captain" reputation might have come last October, when Klein started questioning whether Beckham was well-suited for the armband. If you had polled teams on the best-liked player in MLS, Klein probably would have won the vote. "I really like David as a person, and I respect him as a man," Klein said, "but it's a different type of leadership that has to go on with all this. Sometimes it's the rah-rah American sports leader that needs to be like, 'All right, guys, come on!' and have a team meeting. It's difficult for a foreign player to do that because [he doesn't] know what the college kid had to go through, [he doesn't] know what it's like to make $12,000 a year." The more Beckham disengaged from the Galaxy players, the more some of them wondered if his five-year captaincy with England had been as ceremonial as the role of the British royal family.
Beckham, meanwhile, had grown increasingly frustrated over not seeing enough of the ball on the right side, so much so that he had been drifting all over the field. "There are times when I scratch my head, saying we're paying millions of dollars for a centerback," Lalas said. Beckham wasn't hiding -- he wanted to do something -- but the net effect was negative. Donovan lost count of how many times Beckham commandeered the ball deep in the Galaxy's own end, gave his teammates time to run downfield and sent a long pass a yard or two short, allowing the opponent to counterattack against a defense that now had five players out of position.
By mid-July, Donovan felt he needed to say something to Beckham about it, but it was a sign of their increasingly distant relationship that he did so by text message. I know you're frustrated and I know you're trying, Donovan wrote, but we need you farther up the field where you're more dangerous. You're the best player out there and you need the ball, but it doesn't help us achieve anything if you're doing other people's jobs.
Beckham's reply was short: We just need guys to be better on the field and do a better job. Donovan tried to follow up with Beckham in the locker room the next day -- "You understand what I'm saying?" he asked -- but Beckham clearly didn't want to talk about it.
"It's difficult to know how to approach him with things, to be critical of him," Donovan said, "because he doesn't take it well."
In August 2008 Leiweke napalmed the Galaxy's dysfunctional management structure, pushing out Lalas, Gullit and Byrne, thereby damaging his relationship with Team Beckham. Not once did Beckham address the players as L.A.'s free fall continued, and in October he used a yellow-card suspension as a reason not to attend L.A.'s most important game of the season, a loss in Houston that eliminated the team from playoff contention. Four days later news broke of Beckham's clandestine push to be loaned to AC Milan. Donovan was furious.
Over a lunch of lamb pizza and a peach salad at Petros, a stylish Greek restaurant in Manhattan Beach, Donovan took a sip of Pinot Grigio and exhaled deeply. It was 24 hours after he'd learned of Beckham's desire to move to Milan, and instead of enjoying a Thursday off from practice, he was miserable. The Galaxy's awful season hadn't ended yet, but all the talk was about Beckham's possible departure. Donovan himself was convinced that Captain Galaxy had vanished in spirit weeks earlier. "My sense is that David's clearly frustrated, that he's unhappy and, honestly, that he thinks it's a joke," said Donovan, who was about to clinch the MLS goal-scoring title. "I also kind of feel [he has taken the team] for granted. I don't see dedication or commitment to this team, and that's troubling."
The longer Donovan had been around Beckham, the more he'd asked himself, Who is this guy? Why is he so secretive? Donovan had tried to have a conversation with Beckham the day before, but he'd gotten nowhere. "So you're going to Milan?" Donovan had asked.
"We'll see," Beckham replied. "I've got to stay fit somehow during the off-season."
"It's a nice city, right?"
"Some people say it is, but I don't know."
And that was it. Their lockers were side-by-side, but they might as well have been a million miles apart.
No, Donovan decided, Beckham communicated far more clearly with his actions than with his words. Donovan still couldn't fathom why Beckham had stayed in England for nearly three days after a national-team game the previous week, had refrained from traveling to Houston to support his teammates in the most important game of the year. It didn't matter that he was suspended, Donovan thought, didn't matter that he'd been given permission by the Galaxy to stay away. He was the captain of the team.
"All that we care about at a minimum is that he committed himself to us," Donovan said. "As time has gone on, that has not proven to be the case in many ways -- on the field, off the field. Does the fact that he earns that much money come into it? Yeah. If someone's paying you more than anybody in the league, more than double anybody in the league, the least we expect is that you show up to every game, whether you're suspended or not. Show up and train hard. Show up and play hard. Maybe he's not a leader, maybe he's not a captain. Fair enough. But at a minimum you should bust your ass every day. That hasn't happened. And I don't think that's too much for us to expect. Especially when he's brought all this on us."
Donovan had wanted the Beckham Experiment to work, and there was no reason in his mind that it still couldn't be successful in 2009. But not if Beckham continued acting the way he had during the last half of 2008. "When David first came, I believed he was committed to what he was doing," Donovan said. "He cared. He wanted to do well. He wanted the team and the league to do well. Somewhere along the way -- and in my mind it coincides with Ruud being let go -- he just flipped a switch and said, 'Uh-uh, I'm not doing it anymore.' "
By now, in fact, Donovan no longer agreed with the "good teammate, bad captain" verdict that so many other Galaxy players had reached on Beckham. Donovan was convinced that Beckham wasn't even a good teammate anymore: "He's not. He's not shown that. I can't think of another guy where I'd say he wasn't a good teammate, he didn't give everything through all this, he didn't still care. But with [Beckham] I'd say no, he wasn't committed."
The most fascinating aspect of Donovan's barrage was the even manner in which he delivered it. He sounded like a scientist revealing the findings of an experiment. The way Donovan saw it, he was just sharing his conclusions about a coworker, one who happened to be David Beckham.
Donovan didn't know what would come next, but he did know that things would have to change if he and Beckham were teammates in 2009. "Let's say he does stay here three more years," Donovan said. "I'm not going to spend the next three years of my life doing it this way. This is f------ miserable. I don't want to have soccer be this way."
What could he do? "That's my issue too," he said. "I've got to confront it somehow. If that's the way he's going to be, fine, then hold him accountable. Bench him. Just say, 'We're not going to play you, we don't think you're committed.' "
As disgusted as he sounded, though, Donovan still thought his relationship with Beckham could be saved -- if Beckham returned to being the kind of teammate who at least wanted to come support the Galaxy the day after an England game. Then again, it all might have been moot, given the Milan news. Donovan knew how the soccer world worked, knew how Beckham and 19 Entertainment operated too. "It could be that it's just a loan now," Donovan said, "but he could play a few games and go, 'S---, I want to stay here.'"
Donovan was right. Beckham produced two goals and two assists in his first five games for Milan and announced that he wanted to stay in Italy instead of returning to the Galaxy. Thus began a monthlong global saga of negotiations involving Milan, L.A. and MLS. The result: Beckham would finish the Serie A season and rejoin the Galaxy in July, midway through the MLS season.
By the time Beckham returned, Donovan planned on finally confronting the Englishman over his commitment to the Galaxy. Now, however, the tables had turned. Donovan was wearing the captain's armband again.
Grant Wahl's book, The Beckham Experiment, comes out on July 14. You can pre-order it here.