By Paul Gardner
It is inevitable that this MLS Cup will be all about David Beckham. Even should the unthinkable happen and he is unable to play, that in itself would be the big story.
Well, we’ve been waiting quite a while for this. Waiting for the “Beckham moment” -- waiting five years, which is a hell of a long wait. You wouldn’t know about long delay if you’re listening to Commissioner Don Garber, who spoke recently about Beckham, declaring that “MLS would not be what it is today without him” because Beckham “has delivered on all aspects of our expectations on and off the field.”
Off the field -- I’ll take Garber’s assessment. It seems more than likely that Beckham’s presence, his aura, his reputation, his standing as an icon and as a celebrity have combined to give MLS a whole ton of publicity -- and credibility -- that it would otherwise have struggled to attain.
Furthermore, the marketing types seem delighted with the Beckham presence -- and their happiness is generally acknowledged to be a good thing.
But that five-year wait cannot be ignored. Because, despite Garber’s paean, Beckham has not delivered on the field. That has been seen clearly in the Galaxy’s MLS results between 2007 and 2010, Beckham’s first four years. The lone accomplishment was a losing appearance in the MLS Cup final in 2009 -- a game in which Beckham’s only memorable contribution was a disgraceful tackle that knocked Real Salt Lake’s key player, Javier Morales, out of the game.
From Beckham, we have a right to expect better than that, a lot better. Though Beckham was never a world-class player, he has always been a very good one. You don’t get voted to be the No. 2 player in Europe without having a lot of talent -- and Beckham was so voted in 1999.
What makes Beckham an exceptional player, the skill that people always talk about, is his ability to deliver accurate, even pinpoint, crosses. Right-footed crosses. A considerable skill, one that served him well during his time with Manchester United, playing in England where crossing is the name of the game. That skill became rather less impressive when Beckham moved to Real Madrid -- Spanish soccer being not nearly so smitten with the cross.
Beckham also uses his right foot to strike swerving free kicks -- the “Bend It Like Beckham” slogan does reflect, in its silly way, a considerable talent.
Those were the particular skills that Beckham brought to the Galaxy, the skills that were supposed to make him stand out on the field. They have rarely done so. The main problem being that they are narrow, limited skills -- and in the case of the crosses, they can become repetitive to the point of negating their own value.
No doubt, goal-scoring was expected from Beckham, but that was never his strength. His total of 11 goals in four years for the Galaxy may not be a marketeer’s dream, but it would hardly be fair to bitch about Beckham not doing something that he has never been known for.
Much more open to criticism is the stat that accompanies those 11 goals: 75 regular-season games played in five years, 68 as a starter. During his five years, there were 154 regular-season games. Allowing for his late arrival in 2007, we can knock that total down to 141. Meaning that Beckham played in barely more than half the available regular season games. The 2007 season (five games played), and 2010 (seven games played) were quite simply disasters, while 2009, with 11 games played was not much better. In 2008 Beckham played in 25 out of 30 games, but with little impact -- the Galaxy failed to make the playoffs.
The commitment to the Galaxy was just not there. Most of his long absences from the team have been caused by his insistence on putting non-Galaxy activities first -- his search for England caps, the stress of his offseason loan deals leading to serious injury, and, of course, his attendance at the royal wedding.
Things have been different this season, for he has done what he lamentably failed to do in the previous four, he has devoted himself to the Galaxy. Finally, we have seen a fit -- or nearly fit -- Beckham playing a full -- or nearly full -- schedule for the Galaxy. We have seen a much more effective Beckham, a player who looks like he is determined to win MLS Cup. A different Beckham, not simply a purveyor of crosses (though his 15 assists attest to their continuing usefulness), but a Beckham much more involved in midfield play, in passing movements.
The different Beckham should not surprise. Beckham at age 36 is not the same player he was at 26. Some sort of change in his playing was inevitable, but this one cannot have been easy for Beckham. It has involved a good deal of hard physical activity. In fact, it has surely been a strain, for there have been games in which, far from looking like a rejuvenated player, he has looked quite exhausted.
We saw something like this exhibited most majestically by Pele, who won his first World Cup as a bustling, electric 17-year-old forward, then won the World Cup again when he was 29 but playing as a slower-moving, faster-thinking, more midfield role.
But Beckham’s shift has hardly meant a slowing down. The problem for Beckham is that he refuses to acknowledge advancing years, and clearly believes himself to be still 26. So the more studied, the more cerebral version of Beckham has yet to appear. For the moment, he has done pretty well as the league’s oldest 26-year-old.
His grafting performances in midfield have no doubt been a big part of the Galaxy’s successful season. But one thing Beckham has not been able to do, is to transmute the Galaxy into a stylish, attractive team.
That is what I await. All is not lost. If this final is destined to be about Beckham, then the semifinal against Real Salt Lake offered hope. This was one of the more complete games that Beckham has played for the Galaxy. And, quite suddenly, the Galaxy played, if not with a swagger, then with the suggestion of one. For the Galaxy to score three goals instead of the customary one brings the promise of a true climax to this season, and to Beckham’s tortuous years with the Galaxy. Not least because one of those goals was born of a superb Beckham cross, headed thrillingly into the net by Mike Magee.
We shall see. For the Galaxy -- and Beckham -- this is the awaited climax, the Beckham Moment that has so far obstinately refused to appear. Maybe even a last chance, for this is his final contractual year. A chance that, as far as Beckham, and the Galaxy, and MLS are concerned, demands a win with style.
Houston can still have a lot to say about this. It strikes me as being the MLS team least likely to be susceptible to crosses. And as the clear underdogs, it can play this game without the pressure that sits upon the Galaxy. The Dynamo players will also be fueled by a healthy resentment because, as far as the myth-makers and the marketing gods, who now count for so much in this sport, are concerned, they are the bad guys, the guys with horns who might just ruin the required happy ending.
I do expect the Galaxy to win. Things have been nicely arranged for them to be playing on their virtually impregnable home field. And they are playing a team that nobody expected to get anywhere near the final.
Which is why a win, a mere win, for the Galaxy will not satisfy. It has to be a win with style, a win with a memorable performance from Beckham, otherwise it will be merely another stat in the MLS record book.
The whole Beckham Experiment -- a PR miracle it seems, but, so far, a soccer non-event -- is on the line. It is going to be a rather unusual sort of final.
Just one more note about Beckham. Winner or loser, I think we can expect him to behave with dignity. That is something we have learned about this man, Beckham.