By Paul Gardner
Now that the Galaxy (or as it’s far too often defined, "David Beckham’s Galaxy") has won MLS Cup, we can settle down to have a bit of a ponder about its manner of claiming the title. Beckham has had his say, "We were incredible" is his modest opinion.
Were they? Are they worthy champions? Frankly, no. Worthy winners of the final, yes, that for sure. But to maintain that the Galaxy was “the best” team in MLS takes some doing. Statistically, of course they were the best, and there will be those who believe -- with some reason -- that that’s all that matters.
I don’t think so. And I particularly don’t think so in MLS. This is a league that is trying to sell the sport of soccer to the vast American sporting public. The style of the Galaxy -- basically cautious and boring -- is not going to help that aim at all. Quite the opposite.
One slightly-more-than-superficial look at the Galaxy’s super-stats reveals a gaping hole in their splendor. The Galaxy won 23 of its 38 regular-season and playoff games; 11 of those 23 wins, just about half of them, came by 1-0 scorelines. That was the Galaxy logo: 1-0. I watched most, if not all, of those games and if I don’t recall much about them (and I don’t), it’s because they were such downright ordinary games.
That ability to throttle the soccer-life out of a game and render up a dead 1-0 carcass after 90 minutes of huffing, puffing and nothing was the Galaxy trademark. It got them into the final, a feat that meant we were doomed to another 90 minute dose of pallid soccer. Which is exactly what we got, ending -- of course -- with the obligatory 1-0 win for the Galaxy.
Is that what Beckham calls incredible? Well, in a way it is exactly that -- it is incredible that a team with the most expensive attacking talent in the league could manage only three shots on goal and just one goal. Luckily for the Galaxy, the Dynamo outdid them on ineptitude front, having only one shot on goal.
Here we have the great MLS moment, the climax to its season, a prime-time national telecast -- a game that has even positioned itself exactly as the MLS marketeers wanted, with the Galaxy playing before a sellout crowd in its own stadium -- and what do we get?
We got something that tells you just how corrosive the influence of the marketing crowd can be. They, of course, were mightily pleased because their icon, their most marketable asset, the icon that is Beckham, had come through, and “Beckham’s Galaxy” had triumphed.
So, if the future of MLS is to be about nothing more than marketing celebrities, then Sunday November 20, 2011 marked a massive achievement. It certainly gave us an occasion on which it was apparently OK to ignore the sport itself and focus on the gaudy, glitzy and garish irrelevancies that have hovered around Beckham ever since he descended on us five seasons ago.
Beckham can hardly be blamed for becoming much more important to the salesmen than to the soccer fans. But he does share part of the blame for failing, throughout his time with the Galaxy, to display any convincing devotion to the team. The distractions, the wish to be doing something else, to be playing somewhere else, have been constant.
This year, for the first time the Galaxy did manage to secure his full attention, and they now have (after five years!) their championship. They also have a Beckham who is now making it brutally plain that he feels no particular loyalty to the club. He will now sit back and work out what other offers he might want to take up, what seems more interesting, or more beneficial to his image, or more rewarding.
Whether Beckham returns or not, MLS had better shake some sense into itself and get back to being a purveyor of soccer -- of first class soccer. It will not accomplish Commissioner Don Garber’s exalted aim of becoming one of the top leagues in the world if it concentrates on the marketing of celebrities.
Not least because Beckham is very much one of a kind -- there is no comparable soccer celebrity with his charisma. When Beckham departs, the idea of selling soccer (i.e. MLS) as a subsidiary to a line of sexy underwear will depart with him.
Then MLS will have to rely on the sport itself -- and in that respect, the Galaxy, vintage 2011, is of no help whatever. A team loaded with all that talent should be playing with brio , even a swagger that exudes confidence and superiority.
Instead, Bruce Arena (never before known as a cautious coach) gave us those 11 1-0 wins -- most of them, the final being an example, wins that revealed a team struggling to impose itself. That Galaxy fans will be quite satisfied with a whole season consisting only of 1-0 wins, goes without saying. But watching them is not much fun for anyone else.
The final, to return to the stats, featured just three goalkeeper saves (allow me, for a moment, to indulge in the wishful thinking that this game would have featured at least three more goals had it been played without its barely necessary goalkeepers.) A miserable total of three saves is a measure of the lack of goalmouth activity -- a measure of the lack of excitement.
The goal, when it came, was a beauty, but it was hardly enough to reclaim this game from the mediocrity into which it had sunk. Before that, with its long periods of aimless torpor, the game had barely risen above the ordinary.
And ordinary soccer is not going to turn MLS into a league to match its “Major” claim -- either worldwide, or even within the USA. And certainly not in the race for TV ratings which, for this game, were embarrassing. Those low ratings contain the warning.
That MLS needs its marketeers I do not doubt. But MLS should be creating a sellable product. It should be producing a lively, exciting style of soccer that those guys can sell.
The Beckham years have distorted the hierarchy. We’ve had the marketeers taking over, telling MLS that the important thing is the selling of a celebrity, and let the soccer take care of itself. If Beckham sails off into the sunset, MLS can stop chasing the will-o’-the-wisp of celebrity marketing, and get back to what it should be doing, must be doing: making its soccer more attractive.