The 2008 Galaxy was a nightmare defensively, but early on L.A. also produced some of the most entertaining attacking soccer that MLS had ever seen. Donovan scored eight goals in the season's first five games, three of them coming from Beckham's passes, and for a brief period the Galaxy's two biggest stars found common ground.
After months of reflection Donovan felt that he had worried too much about Beckham's arrival, wasted too much time and energy wondering whether they and their wives would have a close relationship. It was like the bad parts of high school, and it didn't have to be that way. In fact life was a lot easier now that Donovan realized where he and Beckham did connect: on the field, where their shared passion, competitiveness and talent had a sort of elemental purity that Donovan craved. "We're both soccer players," Donovan said, "and we want to win. It's not much more complicated than that. I don't have to go hang out with David on weekends. So by having that mentality we've gotten along really well this year off the field as well. I think there's more mutual respect than there was last year. Not that it was bad, but there was never any real connection."
Of course, forging that soccer bond had been impossible in 2007 because Beckham had rarely played. Donovan now understood how skilled Beckham really was; he marveled at Beckham's passing precision and efficiency, the way he hit the ball cleanly every time. Donovan had reached the point, unheard of in MLS, of believing a teammate's passes would go exactly where they were supposed to—and 95% of the time they did. With the combination of Beckham's technical ability and his full-field vision, Donovan was in soccer nirvana. "It's just fun," he said. "When he gets the ball, my eyes light up because I know every time there's the potential that we're going to score a goal."
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.