Soccer America
Monday July 13th, 2009

Monday was the first day David Beckham trained with the Los Angeles Galaxy since leaving on his self-created, long-term loan deal to AC Milan, and already he's playing the victim.

He said last week that statements made by Landon Donovan questioning his commitment and professionalism were unprofessional, and that he and Donovan will speak about it privately at some point. For his part, Donovan expressed regret at venting his frustrations to Sports Illustrated's Grant Wahl, whose book, The Beckham Experiment, has already generated significant buzz and hits the shelves Tuesday.

All this apologizing and sniping comes at a time when the Galaxy have somewhat quietly lifted themselves into playoff position. With a 5-3-9 record, they are tied for sixth place in the league with 24 points.

"[Bruce Arena] definitely did his research," said forward Mike Magee, one of nearly a dozen players brought in during the offseason by the Galaxy coach. "He got some guys from his past that he trusts and we haven't really skipped a beat on how we are in the locker room. It's translated onto the field."

Beating archrival Chivas USA 1-0 on Saturday should be something to savor, but little aside from the goal by Edson Buddle and nice moments from Donovan enthralled the crowd at Home Depot Center. Yet for the second straight game, Josh Saunders -- filling in for starting keeper Donovan Ricketts -- posted a shutout as the league's worst defense of 2008 strides steadily toward respectability.

"Sometimes on the field we're still not sure quite what to do because we haven't played together that long, but in terms of fighting and battling for each other, it's second to none," Magee said.

Yet can that battling spirit be retained now that Beckham, the "model professional" who bolted from his employer following clandestine arrangements and did everything he could not to come back, is back in the fold?

When fit and committed, he's an asset. But can he fit into the locker room and regain respect from players who felt much the way Donovan did? Donovan's comments triggered the sharpest response, yet even a staunch loyalist like Chris Klein had a few criticisms of Sir Becks.

This whole mess might not have happened if AEG had taken a closer look at its flagship soccer team, as in the team -- you know, the field and the balls and the goals, and the players and the games, the stuff that happens outside the boardroom and corporate jets.

Had he been captain, Donovan would have called a team meeting to hash out this stuff last year. But he gave up the captaincy to Beckham, who apparently didn't ask to be captain but instead upon the request of his handler and best friend was given the armband. And despite the team's problems and his angst, Beckham didn't feel the need to call such a meeting. Beckham did, however, find the time and resources to cut a backdoor deal with AC Milan.

Now just about everybody is in a tight spot. Beckham has a few more months to endure before he can exercise his buyout clause. Can Beckham really put aside his hurt feelings and excel on the field? Donovan has to make nice and drive the Galaxy into the playoffs while keeping the U.S. national team on course for a 2010 World Cup spot. Arena has to keep everything in balance.

There's no secret to the solution. It's winning. Teams that win rarely gripe much, about anything, no matter how deep the rifts between factions or jealousies between players. Losing rubs the nerves raw and blows every small spark into a brush fire.

In the case of the Galaxy, of course, there's that middle ground of tying, which they did nearly every week earlier in the season but have rectified recently with three consecutive 1-0 victories. That low-scoring result might not be what league executives and viewers of Fox Soccer Channel want when Beckham and the Galaxy visit the New York Red Bulls on Thursday night.

Magee believes that once the initial firestorm of Beckham's return blows over, the Galaxy can get back to business even though it won't be business as usual.

"Since I've arrived, it's been great," said Magee, who played six years in New York -- including 1½ seasons with Arena -- before coming west. "Not all of the results have gone our way, but I think Bruce has done an incredible job of getting a great group of guys, both young and old, who have come together and buy into how he wants this organization to run."

"I wasn't here last year, but I can tell you from talking to the guys who were here, the attitude has changed."

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