CARSON, Calif. – Nearing the end of a season filled with frustration and disappointment, the Los Angeles Galaxy have decided it is time to get tough.
On the pitch, there are small signs of a harder edge, with the team looking more like the Galaxy of old in a 2-1 victory over FC Dallas on Sunday. But it is away from the glare of the spotlight that a significant shakeup will take place over the next few months.
Even David Beckham could find himself caught in the crosshairs as Galaxy president Alexi Lalas prepares to usher in a tough new era that he hopes will avoid a repeat of this fractured and uneasy campaign.
The first step will be closer scrutiny of Beckham's physical condition as he recovers from knee and ankle injuries. No longer will the England midfielder's self-evaluations of his progress be taken at face value after playing only three league games.
Beckham is the Galaxy's marquee name and their most experienced player, but with a contract that pays him $6.5 million a year, he will not be allowed to have the final say on his own medical matters.
"Just because David says he is healthy, that does not mean he is healthy," Lalas told Yahoo! Sports. "When we see he is able to train for an extended period of time and are confident he is 100 percent physically and mentally – at that time we will see him on the field and not before.
"We are certainly going to make sure that for his benefit and for the team's benefit we take this one as slowly as possible. We will want to see for certain. We will take every precaution to make sure we are being fair, but also being stringent in terms of our testing and our assessment of where he is at.
"We have been through this over the past couple of months and I would like to think we have grown a little wiser over the process."
Beckham is working out at the Home Depot Center daily and is pushing himself hard in an attempt to return before the end of the season.
While the Galaxy are likely to have been eliminated from the playoff hunt by then, the 32-year-old has a personal incentive of playing a part in the closing stages of England's Euro 2008 qualifying campaign to motivate him.
However, as Lalas' comments bear out, the Galaxy will be reluctant to release Beckham for international duty unless they are persuaded his health is up to scratch. And that diagnosis will come from extensive testing carried out by club doctor Ronald Kvitne, not from Beckham.
Lalas has admiration for the way Beckham tried to soldier on through his ailments in the early days of his new career in California. Yet there is a sense within the club that Beckham must sometimes be saved from his own desire to be on the field – for his own good.
His long-standing ankle injury was not allowed to heal properly after joining the Galaxy, in part due to his own wish to perform earlier than was advisable. He injured his knee in the SuperLiga final just days after playing two matches in 48 hours for England and the Galaxy, respectively, on opposite sides of the world.
The next step of the new Galaxy master plan is to weed out the squad members who responded to the extra attention brought by the Beckham factor with fear and paralysis instead of using it as an incentive, and replace them with characters of steelier nerve.
On that basis, Carlos Pavon is almost certain to leave, having failed to live up to either his salary or reputation while delivering countless dreadful performances. Several other players will be playing for their places in the season's final games.
In terms of merchandising and other revenues, the signing of Beckham has been a huge success despite the former Manchester United and Real Madrid star having been hampered by injury. However, Lalas knows that to maintain credibility, those gains must be backed up by positive performances from the team, not a record of 5-13-6.
"From a competitive side, we need to make sure we are backing it up with a consistently successful and quality product and we (have) yet to get that right," Lalas said. "We have a good core of players who all now have an unprecedented experience behind them that they will benefit individually and collectively from having been through. Those players will be back.
"Other ones – it has become very apparent that they do not survive or thrive in this environment. So we will go and we will get those players that recognize the opportunity, rise to the occasion and can be successful in Los Angeles."
Even though the Galaxy have the most recognizable face in Major League Soccer, that would not prevent them from trying to secure another superstar if the fit was right.
Owners Anschutz Entertainment Group are not afraid of saddling themselves with another big contract in exchange for a front-line performer.
"If there is an opportunity for us to get another high-profile player, it would be wonderful from a business and a competitive perspective," Lalas admitted. "We would not shy away from it. If we felt there was an opportunity to utilise the mechanisms in place in order to get more exciting and more international class into our squad, we will do it."
- Alexi Lalas