Monday August 24th, 2009

"I would like to think that I can be up there with the best players [in MLS], but who knows? ... That's what I'll be hoping for: not just to be the best player in the league, but to be one of the best teams in the league." -- David Beckham, May 2007

Six weeks into Year 3 of the Beckham Experiment, two things are becoming clear:

• After three seasons of abject futility, Beckham's Los Angeles Galaxy are, in fact, one of the best teams in MLS.

• Beckham, who hasn't been much of a factor, still doesn't play as well in MLS league games as he does at a higher level with AC Milan or England.

It's a strange time if you're a hardcore Galaxy fan. Your best player, Landon Donovan, is flying right now, scoring goals (10 at last count) and enjoying the finest stretch of his career. Your coach, Bruce Arena, has engineered a remarkable turnaround, adding smart veterans and talented draft picks to turn last season's fiasco (the Galaxy tied for the league's worst record) into an 8-4-11 team that's capable of winning the MLS championship.

Yet your most famous player, Beckham, continues to make news for the wrong reasons, either by earning his first MLS red card (and an automatic one-game suspension) last week or by confronting hecklers among the Galaxy's own fans in his first home game last month.

Beckham's two best games since his return to Los Angeles didn't count, since they were friendlies against AC Milan and Barcelona. In his five MLS league games, Beckham has produced zero goals and one assist, and though he's playing in the central midfield, his impact has been negligible. Beckham has hardly been terrible, but he hasn't stood out, either. Let's just say MLS' highest-paid player is in no danger of being named to the league's Best XI.

Strangest of all, Beckham seems to have embraced a new role as an instigator/villain on the order of Dennis Rodman. When Beckham returned to America last month, I expected that he'd go on a charm offensive, using his charisma to try to win back the Galaxy fans who were upset that he skipped nearly two-thirds of the MLS regular season to play on loan at Milan.

Instead, Becks has gone the other way. He refused to apologize to Galaxy fans, calling the team's hardcore fan group "a disgrace." He started wearing short-sleeved jerseys for the first time, showing off his hard-man tattoos. He argued with fans on the road in Kansas City and got in the faces of his opponents after hard challenges like a man possessed.

Say hello to David Beckham: heel.

Perhaps it was a conscious decision by Beckham and his image-shapers. Perhaps not. But being the hard-man can backfire: In the game when Beckham was needed the most -- when Donovan didn't start against Seattle last week due to the flu -- Beckham earned a 17th-minute red card for his reckless studs-up tackle on former teammate Peter Vagenas. Playing down a man, the Galaxy lost 2-0 at home.

The good news for L.A. is that was the team's only loss in its last nine league games. Arena is the clear choice at this point for MLS Coach of the Year, not least because he has added useful veterans like midfielder Eddie Lewis, goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts and defenders Gregg Berhalter and Todd Dunivant and shored up a woeful defense that gave up a league-worst 62 goals last season. This season's Galaxy, featuring solid play by rookies A.J. DeLaGarza and Omar González, have given up just 23 goals, tied for third best in MLS.

"It was pretty obvious there had to be a lot of changes," said Arena, who has been in the job for just over a year. "In the offseason, we made changes for the long term as well as the short term. The goal this year is to get the team more competitive, and we've been able to do that."

In fact, after disappointing results with the U.S. at the '06 World Cup and with the New York Red Bulls in '06-07, Arena has reasserted himself among the elite American coaches. "Starting from the top with Bruce, there's finally a consistency," Donovan said, "almost a mission statement in a way, about what we want to be, who we're going to be, and everyone else has kind of followed."

Arena has had a lot on his plate, successfully dealing with everything from the Galaxy's personnel deficiencies to their salary-cap issues to the tensions between Donovan and Beckham following Donovan's critical comments in my book.

Arena's challenge now is to get the most out of Beckham. There's still time, of course. Donovan, for his part, is convinced that the Galaxy have a more functional locker room this season, and that the groundwork has been laid for Beckham to earn his credibility here as one of MLS' best players.

After all, Beckham's performance over the next three months could have a big impact on whether he'll return to MLS in 2010. He's under contract until the end of 2011, but he wants to change it again so that he can join Milan (or another European club) on loan in January, play with that team until the World Cup, and then rejoin the Galaxy after that.

But while that may be good for Beckham, the Galaxy need to have a reason to want Beckham back in 2010 and '11. Would L.A. be better off having a different Designated Player who could play far more for the team next year than a part-timer like Beckham? Perhaps, but the next three months will help determine the answer.

As for now, the Galaxy have a huge game against archrival Chivas USA this Saturday (11 p.m. ET, ESPN2), a game that could set the tone for the stretch run. If you ask Donovan who's the team to beat in MLS right now, he doesn't hesitate.

"Because they've been there, Houston and Columbus, I'd say, are still at the top," he said. "After that, we're getting to a point now that David's back that we're not a team I would want to play against. I think with a few more weeks playing together that we're going to be a very good team."

Good enough to win a title? It's not outside the realm of possibility.

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

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