In August 2007, David Beckham made his MLS debut with the Los Angeles Galaxy against D.C. United at RFK Stadium. After a massive publicity push, expectations were so high for the English player that anything short of a massive surge in the popularity of soccer in the United States would be considered a disappointment.
Since then, the tenure of Beckham - who returns to RFK on Saturday - has been not only disappointing but turbulent and controversial as well.
His first campaign with the team was marred by injury; his second was an on-field disaster in which the high-priced Galaxy tied for last in the Western Conference. To his credit, Beckham did deliver 10 assists and five goals.
With interest in keeping his place on the England national team, Beckham negotiated a loan move to Italian giant AC Milan that returned him to one of the game’s premier leagues. The loan also kept the midfielder in Europe for the first 17 league games of the Galaxy’s 2009 season.
When he returned to Los Angeles last month, some Galaxy fans questioned his commitment to the team. He was involved in two confrontations with fans, drawing a league fine. To top things off, a book titled “The Beckham Experiment: How the World’s Most Famous Athlete Tried to Conquer America” was released in July, exposing an uneasy relationship between Beckham and Galaxy striker Landon Donovan.
Through it all, Beckham’s place on the field and on the team hasn’t changed.
“My role is exactly the same as when I first came: just to play the game and enjoy it,” Beckham said Friday at the Renaissance M Street Hotel in the District. “And if I can give my experience to young kids and the players that are here, then do that. But just be a part of the team.”
Unlike his first two seasons in MLS, Beckham is playing on a competitive team. The Galaxy are 8-4-10 (34 points) and in second place in the Western Conference - an impressive feat considering Beckham has played in just four league games.
Bruce Arena, who guided D.C. United to its first two MLS Cups, was hired late last season as coach and general manger, and he directed a roster overhaul. He also put an emphasis on defense, the Galaxy’s major weakness under previous coaches.
“[The team] has improved with the fact we have got players in our team that, when they step in, they’re ready to play,” Beckham said. “We’ve got a good squad of players now that can do that. … [Arena] treats us like men, which is important. Players respect that, and hopefully we’re showing our respect to him by working hard in training and playing the games like we have been.”
The changes also had an effect on locker room chemistry. The team captaincy was returned to Donovan, who held the title before Beckham was granted the honor in 2007. MLS veterans Dema Kovalenko, Tony Sanneh and Alecko Eskandarian have also brought a new professionalism to the team on and off the field, taking some of the pressure off Beckham.
“When he was the captain last year, there was more, I guess, put on his shoulders - probably unfairly,” Donovan said. “This year I think he’s comfortable with where he’s at, where he fits into the team well and makes the plays he needs to make to help us win. I think we’ve all kind of taken that attitude. We don’t have a David-has-to-have-the-ball, Landon-has-to-have-the-ball mentality. I think everyone is taking ownership of the team together.”
While Beckham has encountered some frustrating moments this summer - the fan confrontations, a straight red card against Seattle last week - there have been flashes of brilliance. The 34-year-old set up both of the Galaxy’s goals in their exhibition against AC Milan. He also bent in a trademark free kick for a goal in a friendly against Barcelona at the Rose Bowl.
With those flashes, it has been hard for even his coach to kick some of those lofty expectations set forth back in 2007.
“I expect him to be a damn good player, game in and game out,” Arena said. “I don’t know what anyone else asked him to do, but that’s expected, and it’s not easy.”