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Does David Beckham care about MLS?

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CARSON, Calif. – Huddled in bars or hunched in front of computers, the most rabid fans of the Los Angeles Galaxy work on chants meant to insult David Beckham.

That's right. The same David Beckham who is the most celebrated member of the Galaxy has become the most despised target of the 300-plus zealots who call themselves the L.A. Riot Squad.

To the tune of Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall," instead of singing "We don't need no education," the Riot Squad roars, "We don't need no David Beckham." And to the tune of "Glory, Glory Man United," not coincidentally a refrain sung by backers of one of Beckham's former teams, Manchester United, the Riot Squad belts out, "Who the [expletive] is David Beckham?"

Soon, Beckham will have a chance to earn forgiveness – or further scorn.

The 34-year-old midfielder is scheduled to make his 2009 Major League Soccer debut on Thursday when the Galaxy face the New York Red Bulls at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.

In a game that might strike some as a meaningless midseason match, something significant is at stake: Beckham's reputation.

Just last week, Beckham returned to the United States with his professionalism and commitment to the Galaxy and MLS called into question by Galaxy teammate Landon Donovan. Now, people will be watching to see if Donovan was right. They'll be watching to see if this master plan to heighten interest in American soccer has devolved into a money grab by the world's most famous soccer player.

"In 17 years, I have played for the biggest teams in the world. I've played with the biggest players and sporting icons of our teams, and the strongest and biggest managers in soccer," Beckham said. "And not once in 17 years have I been criticized for my professionalism."

How Beckham earned his ignominious status with the L.A. Riot Squad and put himself under intense scrutiny involved the following:

First, almost as soon as he arrived in Los Angeles two years ago, Galaxy management stripped the captaincy from Donovan and handed it to Beckham. Second, he failed to guide L.A. to the playoffs in two lackluster seasons, the first limited to five games because of a nagging ankle injury originally sustained at Real Madrid. This year, the multimillionaire Brit missed the team's first 17 games because he was too busy playing in Italy for AC Milan in a loan deal to keep alive his World Cup ambitions with England.

The Riot Squad is infuriated most by what Beckham denies – that he coasted during the end of the Galaxy's abysmal 2008 season.

"Just because [soccer] is not No. 1 [in America] doesn't mean we're ignorant and that we don't know we're being disrespected," said David Martinous, one of the Riot Squad's ringleaders. "David Beckham has disrespected us."

Two seasons ago, 66,237 fans flocked to the Meadowlands to watch Beckham make his first MLS start and set up three Galaxy goals in a 5-4 Red Bulls victory. Last year, he helped attract almost 50,000 fans to Giants Stadium even though the Red Bulls averaged fewer than 14,000 for home games. The attendance for Thursday's game will serve as a barometer of the current interest in Beckham. But others will be watching him to determine whether his dedication to the Galaxy and MLS is sincere.

So far, has his time in the States been a failure?

"People have asked me that before," Beckham said.

"And I've said, 'No,' because you only consider it a failure when it's over. And this is not over."

His return to Los Angeles last weekend offered telling clues of what to expect.

Lukewarm reception

Armed and ready, about 20 photographers and videographers jockeyed for position at the Los Angeles International Airport last Friday night. They had sniffed out news that Beckham, his wife, Victoria, and their three sons would be arriving.

They did arrive, as scheduled, but the family took a private exit.

"They tricked everybody," said Francois Navarre, president of X17, a paparazzi photo agency.

When Beckham first came to the United States as the savior of MLS, he strolled out the front exit of LAX into an army of photographers, TV cameramen and star-struck passersby. Managed by Simon Fuller, producer of "American Idol," Beckham seemed intent on becoming just that – an American idol.

Two dozen of the paparazzi's most dogged members were assigned to shadow Beckham, according to Navarre. Now, Navarre says the pack has thinned to five. But the appetite for photos remains voracious, especially if Beckham is in the company of his wife, the former pop singer-turned-fashionista.

"I know that some people are disappointed with what has happened with the Galaxy," Navarre said. "But he's still huge. … I just think it's because he's proved himself as an international celebrity."

Less than 24 hours after Beckham eluded photographers at the airport, a red SUV with tinted windows pulled up to a soccer field in El Segundo, Calif. The doors opened, and Beckham emerged with a guest – Zinedine Zidane, the retired French soccer star infamous for a head butt that got him booted from the 2006 World Cup final. But the waiting paparazzi had no reason to fear Zidane's shaved noggin. They were welcomed, as were dozens of other journalists.

Beckham and Zidane left their footprints in cement blocks and scrimmaged with two youth teams while helping mark the launch of a program sponsored by MLS, adidas and FieldTurf to build soccer fields in urban areas across the country. Then, separated by a rope line, Beckham greeted the media and conducted interviews. One of his P.R. reps lifted the rope for a leggy woman who kissed the soccer star on both cheeks.

The special treatment had been reserved for Terri Seymour, former girlfriend of "American Idol" judge Simon Cowell and a TV correspondent for "Extra" entertainment.

"Welcome back to L.A.," she cooed.

"It's great to be back," Beckham replied, and more than a few sportswriters rolled their eyes while Seymour batted her eyelashes.

After all, Beckham had said nothing in recent weeks when AC Milan attempted to buy his rights from the Galaxy and MLS in a deal that would have abruptly ended his soccer career in North America. But the Galaxy and the league refused the offer, and Beckham dutifully returned to L.A. and a brewing controversy over a book that exposed turmoil within the Galaxy.

On July 2, excerpts from the newly released "The Beckham Experiment" were published. Subsequent news reports focused on the comments of Donovan, who questioned Beckham's commitment to the team.

"I can't think of another guy where I'd say he wasn't a good teammate, he didn't give everything through all this, he didn't still care," Donovan was quoted as saying. "But with [Beckham], I'd say no, he wasn't.

"All that we care about at a minimum is that he committed himself to us. As time has gone on, that has not proven to be the case in many ways – on the field, off the field."

Presumably, Donovan's quotes reached Beckham while he was on vacation on the Seychelle Islands with his wife to celebrate their 10th wedding anniversary. Beckham had been unavailable for comment until he sunk his feet into the cement in El Segundo on Saturday. Finished with the likes of Extra TV and E! News, Beckham faced a small squadron of sportswriters.

"It's unprofessional in my eyes," Beckham said of Donovan's remarks. "In every soccer player's eyes throughout the world, it would be unprofessional to speak out about a teammate – especially in the press and not to your face. … I have played with the biggest teams in the world and the biggest players and not once have I been criticized for my professionalism."

The soccer soap opera was not over.

"I will be speaking to Landon," he said.

Beckham would get his first chance later that night at the Home Depot Center, where the Galaxy were playing rival Chivas USA. But there were signs he also needed to patch up his relationship with the team's fans. In the merchandise shop, Beckham replica jerseys – once snatched up by the dozens at $99.95 a pop – looked lonely as they hung from a rack in the corner of the store.

"He's like a traitor now," one of the employees in the store said.

Few fans seemed interested in buying a Beckham jersey until they knew he would be playing for the Galaxy again.

"He doesn't exist right now," said Rachel Grim, an employee in the team's merchandise store. "It's all about Donovan."

Dressed for success?

Pacing in a luxury box, Tim Leiweke, CEO of the Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG) – the company that owns the Galaxy – checked his BlackBerry. He looked up at one of two flat-screen TVs. Checked his BlackBerry again. Looked at one of the two TVs. Kept pacing.

This continued for about 10 minutes before Leiweke turned toward the door.

A group of about a dozen people entered. Among them was Beckham, clad in a dark blazer and a power blue shirt (untucked, of course) and Victoria, sporting Daisy Duke jean shorts and knee-high boots.

One fan came up to the suite. Two more. Then a growing cluster. Word spread quickly.

David Beckham is in the luxury box!

Young boys pleaded for his autograph. Adults snapped pictures with their phone cameras. Ushers tried to restore order.

With the youngest of his three sons on his lap, Beckham smiled and looked unfazed. Victoria, eyes hidden behind oversized glasses, looked sullen. The ushers looked frantic.

Gawkers turned their backs to the field as the Chivas USA-Galaxy game got under way. It took five minutes for ushers to clear out the crowd.

Just then, two rows in front of the luxury box, a man stood up, turned around and took aim with his phone camera.

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Zinedine Zidane and David Beckham
David Beckham (right) says hello to ex-Real Madrid teammate Zinedine Zidane at Home Depot Center last Saturday.
( Mark J. Terrill/AP Photo)

"Sir," an usher snapped.

Later, a friend of the offending spectator said of the ushers: "They got mad because he held his phone up. You know what I'm upset about? That we paid $55 million for [Beckham] to sit on the bench."

Officially, the Galaxy are paying Beckham $6.5 million a year as part of a $32.5 million, five-year contract that allows him to leave after this season. Beckham's handlers are primarily responsible for the assumption that he is getting tens of millions more.

When Beckham signed with the Galaxy, they made sure the news release pointed out that Beckham, with commercial opportunities, could net more than $250 million from the deal. To this point, that would break down to $50 million per goal (he's scored five), almost $21 million per assist (he has 12) or more than $8 million per game (he's played in 30).

Two men largely responsible for the contract stood in that luxury box last Saturday. Leiweke and MLS commissioner Don Garber gambled that Beckham could help make professional soccer relevant in America. Garber and his staff balk at suggestions that the Beckham Experiment already has failed; as evidence, they provide statistics culled from the same newly released book with the juicy excerpts.

• Last season, even though the Galaxy finished with the league's worst record, they attracted an average crowd of 28,132 for road games – 10,000 more fans than any other MLS team.

• By last spring, 350,000 official Beckham Galaxy jerseys had been sold.

• Beckham's arrival increased the Galaxy's sponsorship by $6 million in 2007 alone, and average attendance for the team's home games in 2008 was up almost 25 percent from attendance in 2006 even though the team raised the average ticket price from $21.50 to $32.

But anyone who proclaims Beckham's coming to America a success must ignore this inconvenient truth: The TV ratings for MLS games on ESPN2 have remained minuscule, with Beckham providing only an incremental bump when the network televises Galaxy games. ESPN2 is scheduled to televise only four of the team's final 13 regular-season MLS games.

"It's not over yet," Garber said of the league's Beckham era. "But it is fulfilling our goals and our expectations."

Nonsense, say sports marketing experts.

"Clearly, many Galaxy fans feel let down, if not deceived, and AEG must redouble its efforts to regain the trust of these disenfranchised fans," David Carter, who heads the Sports Business Group based in Los Angeles, wrote in an e-mail. "It also gives others, especially Chivas USA, the opportunity to more extensively cultivate Southern California soccer fans."

Marc Ganis, president of Sportcorp Ltd., based in Chicago, said Beckham succeeded only in proving there's no single player who can create a broad-based interest in U.S. soccer. He said the MLS would be wise to embrace its position as a niche sport.

"It's the old Clint Eastwood bromide: A man's got to know his limitations," Ganis said.

"You can't identify yourself as being something that you're not because that hype will eventually come back to bite you in the butt. People will start to trivialize it.

"I don't think that's happened to MLS – let me be clear – but there's still people out there that cling to this obviously inaccurate notion that as children who play soccer growing up, they will become ticket buyers of professional soccer. It hasn't happened for three generations [and] it's not likely to happen for the next three generations. It's not going to happen."

Garber and Leiweke are among those holding out hope.

'Unprofessional' fouls

Last Saturday night, from their spot in the luxury box at the Home Depot Center, Garber and Leiweke looked especially pleased 30 minutes into the game when the Galaxy's Edson Buddle broke a scoreless tie with a crisp header. But about that same time, as one of the Riot Squad members later recalled, squad members sitting in corner sections 137 and 138 at Home Depot Stadium unleashed a chant.

"Who the (expletive) is David Beckham?
Who the (expletive) is David Beckham?
Who the (expletive) is David Beckham?
The G's go marching on."

The G's did march on, beating rival Chivas USA 1-0 to improve their record to 5-3-9 and boost their chances of making the playoffs for the first time since Beckham joined the team. All of which was irrelevant to the sportswriters who circled around Donovan's locker after the game and wanted to know what he thought about Beckham calling him "unprofessional."

Donovan, who regained the team's captaincy armband before the start of the 2009 season, buttoned up his dress shirt.'

"We will sort everything out," he said. "I'm done speaking publicly about it."

"As of when?" a reporter asked.

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Landon Donovan and David Beckham
Can Landon Donovan (left) and Beckham put their differences aside for the greater good of the Galaxy?
( Mark Ralston/AFP Photo)

"As of right now," Donovan shot back.

Turned out, there had been a possible encounter between the two players.

Beckham, after his appearance at the soccer field in El Segundo, headed to the Home Depot Center and underwent tests to gauge his physical fitness. Before he left the facility, the Galaxy's players, including Donovan, arrived.

After the Chivas game, players declined to say if Beckham had confronted Donovan. But they made it clear how they felt about his return.

"He's one of the best players in the world; of course we're excited to have him back," said Galaxy defender Gregg Berhalter. "He's a great player and to add a player of his quality can help the team dramatically."

"He's a guy that can come in and work very hard," said veteran forward Chris Klein. "He adds a lot to our team, both with his personality in the locker room with the younger players and most definitely out on the field."

After the locker room cleared out, and only two reporters remained, Galaxy coach Bruce Arena sunk into a leather couch in the team lounge and agreed to address the issue. While refusing to disclose specifics, Arena left the impression that the matter had been discussed with the two players – and that he relished his role in the situation.

"The tactical part of soccer, you need experience and knowledge and all of that," said Arena, the former coach of the U.S. men's team who took over the Galaxy almost a year ago. "But to me, this is different.

"A lot of coaches will go out on the circuit and give speeches on teamwork for a lot of money because it's a real interesting challenge. … And for me to have not only all of these guys in the locker room but also a person like David and Landon to manage is a challenge that I really enjoy."

On Monday, under a sweltering sun, more than 70 reporters, photographers and TV cameramen waited outside a field adjacent to the Home Depot Center. Beckham was completing his first full practice with the Galaxy, and it would be the first opportunity for the media to speak with him since he'd seen Donovan.

The gate opened. The horde surged.

When the director of Galaxy media relations escorted Beckham to a corner of the field, journalists jostled for position. The shutter clicks and questions came in rapid succession. But again and again, Beckham offered the same answer.

"It's finished," he said. "We move on."

He insisted the Galaxy must move in the same direction.

"It's so important that we make the playoffs," Beckham said. "We make the playoffs, and we'll see what happens."

"I've been here for two seasons. I've had a six-month stint in Milan that I've enjoyed," he added. "But I never said once that I'd be leaving the MLS and going anywhere else."

"I've already said so many times that I'm committed to this cause and committed to this plan going forward. It's something I believe in."

Beckham has said all the right things since he rejoined the Galaxy. But those who doubt his level of commitment and professionalism should watch closely when the Galaxy play the Red Bulls on Thursday night.

Because it's only on the field that David Beckham can prove he means what he says.

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