Wednesday July 15th, 2009

The day was Oct. 23, 2008. Los Angeles Galaxy forward Landon Donovan was sitting across from me as we ate lunch at Petros, a yuppified Greek restaurant in Manhattan Beach, Calif. With the cold-blooded confidence of a man who knew exactly what he was saying, Donovan was in the midst of calmly eviscerating his teammate, David Beckham, for what Donovan saw as Beckham's lack of leadership and commitment at the end of the 2008 MLS season.

By then I had been interviewing Donovan and other Galaxy figures for 16 months as part of the reporting for my book, The Beckham Experiment, and while Donovan had criticized Beckham before to me, his broadside that day was raising the stakes to a much higher level.

At one point I finally said to him: "You realize that these comments will cause a s---storm, especially in the U.K.?"

Donovan's response came with a shrug. "It's OK," he said. "You know what? At the end of the day, if I'm being honest, it's not perception without facts. There's things that he's done that are very clear that validate it all."

I'm still thinking about that exchange now as we look forward to Donovan and Beckham taking the field together for the first time in nine months on Thursday night at Giants Stadium against the New York Red Bulls (8 p.m. ET, Fox Soccer Channel). After a war of words between the Galaxy's two biggest stars, Beckham and Donovan now say they have spoken to each other, cleared up their differences and moved on.

That's what they have to say publicly, of course, for the Galaxy not to slip back into the rampant dysfunction they had in 2008. But it's impossible to believe. Donovan may have apologized for the manner in which he delivered those comments, but he has never backed down from their content, and Beckham clearly does not like to be criticized by anyone.

In nearly a decade of covering Donovan, I have learned this: He is remarkably honest (sometimes to a fault) and he knows exactly what he is saying at all times. It is possible Donovan's criticisms of Beckham were based to some degree on professional jealousy, but I also believe Donovan wanted them to be public, and he knew that he was the only person with the Galaxy who could say them.

And, when it comes to Beckham's poor leadership and lack of commitment to the team, Donovan also happened to be 100 percent correct.

What else is on my mind in anticipation of Beckham's return on Thursday? Let's jump in:

The pressure is now squarely on Beckham to perform. In the two years since his arrival in MLS, Beckham has been a successful businessman (making millions of dollars) and a successful U.S. celebrity, winning a regular place in People magazine and Entertainment Tonight. But at some point, for credibility's sake, the Beckham Experiment has to be about the soccer.

Now is Beckham's chance to join a Galaxy team that has been winning without him (three straight heading into Thursday) and help lead it to the playoffs. But success is hardly guaranteed. Since Beckham's arrival, the Galaxy have had a higher winning percentage when Beckham isn't on the field than when he is.

Nobody would say that it's because Beckham is a bad player (he played well at times during his loan at AC Milan), but several Galaxy players told me they struggled to deal with the Beckham circus -- the crushing media attention that follows him wherever he goes. However, this Galaxy team may be better equipped to handle that pressure now that coach Bruce Arena has added a number of veterans in 2009.

Does Arena have what it takes to manage the Beckham/Donovan situation? As recently as '06, more than one U.S. player hailed Arena as a "genius" for the way he managed personalities within the U.S. national team during his nearly eight-year coaching tenure. That changed after the U.S.' first-round exit at the 2006 World Cup and his short stay with the New York Red Bulls.

But now, Arena is facing one of his greatest challenges in the Beckham/Donovan situation -- and an opportunity to recapture his reputation as one of the game's great managers. So far, it appears Arena has handled it well, but the proof will come on the field. Winning cures a lot of problems in sports, and if the Galaxy can finally start winning with Beckham, his issues with Donovan will die down. If the Galaxy don't win, though, the bad blood will linger, no matter what anyone says publicly.

I don't think I'll be taking journalism lessons from Beckham. When asked about my book, for which nearly everyone in the Galaxy participated over a 16-month period, Beckham called it "lazy journalism" and tried to discredit it by saying that it wasn't an "official" book that had his stamp of approval.

So if we follow Beckham's logic, "hard-working journalism" would have involved me paying Beckham and his handlers a huge sum of money (which is what they wanted from me for exclusive book access; Beckham's handlers told me that Beckham received in excess of $1 million for previous books) and presumably giving them approval over the content of the finished product.

Call me crazy, but in the U.S. we don't pay the people we interview, and we don't give them approval over what we write. If that's Beckham's idea of good journalism, then he really is living in a bubble. I know that Beckham has said he won't read the book, but I don't believe that for a second. And he should read it: He'll learn what his teammates really think of the Beckham Experiment, and it could serve as a cautionary tale for Beckham of what not to do when he potentially owns his own MLS team some day.

The conditions are perfect for another Beckham comeback. Few athletes in modern sports have engineered remarkable comebacks more than once in their careers, and Beckham is one of them. A year after his red card at the 1998 World Cup made Beckham the most hated man in England, he recaptured his fans by helping lead Manchester United to an unprecedented Treble. And after he'd been banished from Real Madrid and England in early 2007, Beckham somehow rallied to rejoin England and guide Madrid to the Spanish league title.

Now Beckham is at his lowest point in America, the subject of deserved criticism from his most important teammate for a lack of commitment, and this part-time Galaxy player has no choice but to respond in the only way that will earn back the respect of American soccer fans who are savvier than he may believe.

Just win, baby. You can't escape the field.

Grant Wahl's book, The Beckham Experiment, is now available in bookstores everywhere. You can order it here. You can also find him on Twitter.

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