Posted: Tuesday June 1, 2010 2:53PM ; Updated: Tuesday June 1, 2010 3:14PM
Grant Wahl
Grant Wahl>INSIDE SOCCER

Fallout from Donovan's comments in The Beckham Experiment (cont.)

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After a turbulent first season in L.A. together, David Beckham (left) and Landon Donovan played well as teammates last year.
MLS via Getty Images

In fact, the circumstances of Beckham's return set him up for another surprising comeback. Few athletes in modern sports had engineered remarkable comebacks more than once in their careers, and Beckham was one of them. A year after his red card at the 1998 World Cup made Beckham the most hated man in England, he recaptured his fans by helping lead Manchester United to an unprecedented Treble. And after he'd been banished from Real Madrid and England in early 2007, Beckham somehow rallied to rejoin England and guide Madrid to the Spanish league title.

Now Beckham was at his lowest point in America, the subject of deserved criticism from his most important teammate for a lack of commitment, and this part-time Galaxy player had no choice but to respond in the only way that would earn back the respect of American soccer fans, who were savvier than he may have believed.

Just win, baby.

It certainly helped that Arena had put together a competitive Galaxy team in 2009, one that didn't need Beckham as a savior. L.A. was 5-3-9 when Beckham arrived, having won three straight games. Arena had brought in eighteen new players, including a defense anchored by useful veteran pickups (goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts and defender Gregg Berhalter) and smart draft picks (rookie defenders Omar Gonzalez and A. J. DeLaGarza). Beckham's absence during the season's first half forced the shorthanded Galaxy into what Arena called "survival mode." It wasn't always entertaining soccer -- L.A. ground out eight ties in one nine-game stretch -- but that foundation set the stage for a second-half surge once the Galaxy was at full strength.

During Beckham's first six weeks back with the team, though, he stood out less for his game-breaking passes than for his temper's short fuse. In Beckham's first home game at the HDC -- a friendly on July 19 against AC Milan -- the L.A. Riot Squad fan section hung a banner that read GO HOME FRAUD and booed Beckham, its own player, every time he touched the ball. As the teams left the field at halftime, Beckham charged toward the Riot Squad shouting epithets, attempted to climb a signboard, and pointed a finger at the jeering fans. When Beckham challenged one to come down on the field, Josh Paige, a twenty-eightyear-old video-game technician, jumped from eight feet onto the grass, where he was immediately nabbed by security guards and frog-marched out of the stadium.

"When David Beckham calls you out, you get on the field," Paige told The New York Times. "In hindsight, I wish I didn't stoop to his level. I wish I was the bigger man." For his part, Beckham claimed, implausibly, that he was only inviting the fan to come shake his hand. The MLS league office didn't buy it, handing Beckham a $1,000 fine. In the Galaxy's next game at Kansas City, Beckham had another incident with a heckler, in which the Englishman exchanged angry words with the man and attempted to shake his hand before a throw-in during the middle of the game.

It was strange behavior by Beckham, who had kept his cool while enduring far worse treatment from fans in England after his '98 World Cup red card. Most observers expected that Beckham would embark on a charm offensive upon returning to America, using his charisma to win back the Galaxy fans who were upset that he had skipped nearly twothirds of the MLS season. Instead, Beckham went the other way. He refused to apologize to Galaxy fans, calling the L.A. Riot Squad "a disgrace." He started wearing short-sleeved jerseys for the first time, showing off his hard-man tattoos. He got in the faces of his opponents after hard challenges like a man possessed.

Say hello to David Beckham, heel. The apotheosis of Beckham the Villain came against Seattle on August 15, when he drew his first MLS red card in the seventeenth minute on a reckless studs-up challenge against Peter Vagenas, his friend and former Galaxy teammate. Playing down a man, L.A. fell 2-0 at home and lost the suspended Beckham for the next game as well. It was an odd time for Galaxy fans, whose team was on a roll -- the Seattle game was L.A.'s only league loss in a ten-game stretch -- even though its most famous player was struggling on the field. In the Galaxy's first six league games following Beckham's return, he provided zero goals and just one assist despite playing in the central midfield.

If there was one moment that turned around Beckham's MLS season, it came on August 29 against Chivas USA. In the eightieth minute of a scoreless game on national television, the ball bounded toward Beckham after a throw-in near the Chivas penalty box. Beckham raced toward the ball and struck it with a piece of world-class skill, bouncing his shot off the ground, off the Chivas goalpost, and into the net. The sold-out crowd roared, including the L.A. Riot Squad, as the Galaxy finished off the 1-0 victory. Winning solves a lot of problems, and L.A. won consistently down the stretch, beating San Jose 2--0 in the regularseason finale to go to 12-6-12 and earn the Western Conference's top seed in the MLS playoffs.

By any measure it was a remarkable turnaround, not just for the Galaxy (which had tied for the league's worst record in 2008) but for Beckham himself. Under Arena, the Beckham experiment was finally about the soccer, and it became clearer than ever that Beckham had a special connection on the field with Donovan, who was enjoying perhaps his finest year as a professional. Donovan's twelve goals and six assists helped earn him his first MLS MVP award, and it was a Beckham -- Donovan connection that made the difference in the first round of the playoffs against Chivas. With the teams deadlocked on a 2-2 aggregate late in the second leg, Beckham unleashed a jaw-dropping forty-yard diagonal rainbow the kind of pass that only Beckham would even try-- that hit Donovan in mid-stride. The American passed to teammate Mike Magee, who drew the penalty that Donovan would convert for the decisive goal.

There was more of the same in the one-game Western Conference final against Houston the following week. The Galaxy and Dynamo were scoreless until extra-time, when Berhalter bundled in the game's first goal off a scramble in the box following a Beckham free kick. Donovan sealed the 2-0 victory with a penalty kick, and the lasting image from the night was Donovan and Beckham celebrating together, arms around each other's shoulders, gleefully commemorating the Galaxy's first trip to MLS's championship game since 2005. The controversy from July was a distant memory. "To their credit, they've dealt with it in a professional way," said teammate Chris Klein, who was close to both Beckham and Donovan. "The way they've played on the field takes care of a lot of other issues that could be hanging out there. They've both been fantastic."

To purchase a copy of the new paperback editon of The Beckham Experiment, go here.

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