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Fallout from Donovan's comments in The Beckham Experiment

Copyright © 2010 by Grant Wahl From the book THE BECKHAM EXPERIMENT by Grant Wahl, published by Three Rivers Press/Crown Publishers, a division of Random House, Inc. Reprinted with permission.

The Los Angeles Galaxy played a game on July 11, 2009 -- a 1-0 win against archrival Chivas USA -- but that was hardly the most compelling Hollywood showdown of the day. A 5,000-word first excerpt of this book had appeared in Sports Illustrated on July 1, ten days before David Beckham was set to return from Europe and rejoin the Galaxy, and it aired some of Landon Donovan's most explosive criticisms: that Beckham was a poor captain, that he wasn't fully committed to the Galaxy, and that he had become a bad teammate during the second half of the 2008 season.

Donovan's broadside set off a global media firestorm unlike anything Major League Soccer had seen since Beckham joined the league. Never before in Beckham's career had he been so harshly judged in public by another player, much less a current teammate. What's more, Donovan's words suddenly carried more weight than they would have only a few months before: He was coming off a sterling performance at the Confederations Cup in South Africa, where he led the United States to an upset of world number-one Spain (its first loss in thirty-five games) and a hard-fought 3-2 defeat to Brazil in the final. For all those reasons, Donovan's diatribe grabbed headlines not just in the U.S. and in England but everywhere from Spain to Singapore to Australia. Suddenly MLS had an epic internecine feud that rivaled the famous bust-up between Los Angeles Lakers teammates Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal. Would the result of this one be the same? Would Beckham or Donovan have to leave the Galaxy? Those were the questions hanging in the air that day.

The drama reached a climax just a few hours after Beckham landed in Los Angeles late on July 10. The next day, Beckham appeared at a community event promoting new soccer fields in El Segundo, California, with his former Real Madrid teammate Zinédine Zidane -- a notso-subtle reminder to the media of Beckham's standing in the soccer world. Then Beckham spoke to reporters for the first time since Donovan's comments had been published. "It's unprofessional, in my eyes," Beckham said. "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. But I'm going to turn it on a positive spin because that's what this needs. But in seventeen years I have played with the biggest teams in the world and the biggest players, and not once have I been criticized for my professionalism. It's important to get this cleared up, and I will be speaking to Landon either this evening or over the next couple of days."

Beckham didn't suit up that night, but he did walk into the Galaxy locker room before the game and encounter Donovan. It was the first time the players had seen each other in eight months. They exchanged brief hellos, and Donovan felt a palpable awkwardness. "Obviously, it was uncomfortable for both of us," Donovan would say.

In the days since Donovan's comments had gone public, the American star had sent Beckham several text messages without ever receiving a response. Donovan had also sat down for interviews with ESPN and the Los Angeles Times, in which he apologized for voicing his opinions to a reporter before speaking directly to Beckham, but Donovan pointedly hadn't backed down from what he had said in the book.

Donovan felt badly about the timing of the excerpt's release, but he also thought his comments wouldn't be viewed as so controversial once people had read the entire book, which was set for publication later that week. "I don't think we should ever apologize for the way we feel," Donovan would explain. "However, I got caught up in the way I felt about it, as opposed to trying to figure out where those feelings were coming from. If I had taken the time during that year to really think about what was going on, to understand it from David's perspective, I wouldn't have said those things. I would have had a different outlook on all of it. But at the time I got caught up in all the emotions of it. ... And some of the things I said I didn't even really mean."

Such as? "When I say he should have come in and done something monetarily for the guys, I don't really believe that. That's not his job. I just had these expectations of him that were unfair. I realized that he's a person just like everyone else."

A few minutes after he had showered and finished his postgame interviews, Donovan was sitting at his locker when Galaxy coach Bruce Arena came by. "Let's get this done," Arena told him. There would be no wasted time. The coach had already pulled Beckham into his office, surprising Donovan, who thought Arena would wait until at least the next day before bringing the two players together. Donovan followed Arena into his office, an austere, windowless space in the warren of rooms inside the Home Depot Center. Arena took a seat behind his desk. Beckham and Donovan sat on the other side. And then, for the next fifteen minutes, the healing process began.

"I did most of the talking," Donovan said. "In the simplest form, I apologized to David and he accepted it. It was pretty basic. There wasn't a whole lot that Bruce had to do. It felt good just to talk about it. I learned a lot, actually, from how David dealt with my apology, how he dealt with the whole situation, because if I put myself in his shoes I would have been really pissed off. He might have been mad, but he was a man and he accepted my apology. And he didn't hold it against me. Anytime before this year I wouldn't have been the same way. I probably wouldn't have accepted it, and I would have held a grudge."

When the meeting was over, Donovan felt as though a weight had been lifted from his shoulders. The relationship could be saved. "I would describe it as real from that point forward," Donovan would say. "We could talk openly and honestly. We could still argue and disagree on things, just like anyone else on the team, but when you have that basis of trust and understanding, then there aren't any issues." They would never be best friends. But the town would be big enough for the two of them after all.

In fact, the circumstances of Beckham's return set him up for another surprising comeback. Few athletes in modern sports had engineered remarkable comebacks more than once in their careers, and Beckham was 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 was 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 had no choice but to respond in the only way that would earn back the respect of American soccer fans, who were savvier than he may have believed.

Just win, baby.

It certainly helped that Arena had put together a competitive Galaxy team in 2009, one that didn't need Beckham as a savior. L.A. was 5-3-9 when Beckham arrived, having won three straight games. Arena had brought in eighteen new players, including a defense anchored by useful veteran pickups (goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts and defender Gregg Berhalter) and smart draft picks (rookie defenders Omar Gonzalez and A. J. DeLaGarza). Beckham's absence during the season's first half forced the shorthanded Galaxy into what Arena called "survival mode." It wasn't always entertaining soccer -- L.A. ground out eight ties in one nine-game stretch -- but that foundation set the stage for a second-half surge once the Galaxy was at full strength.

During Beckham's first six weeks back with the team, though, he stood out less for his game-breaking passes than for his temper's short fuse. In Beckham's first home game at the HDC -- a friendly on July 19 against AC Milan -- the L.A. Riot Squad fan section hung a banner that read GO HOME FRAUD and booed Beckham, its own player, every time he touched the ball. As the teams left the field at halftime, Beckham charged toward the Riot Squad shouting epithets, attempted to climb a signboard, and pointed a finger at the jeering fans. When Beckham challenged one to come down on the field, Josh Paige, a twenty-eightyear-old video-game technician, jumped from eight feet onto the grass, where he was immediately nabbed by security guards and frog-marched out of the stadium.

"When David Beckham calls you out, you get on the field," Paige told The New York Times. "In hindsight, I wish I didn't stoop to his level. I wish I was the bigger man." For his part, Beckham claimed, implausibly, that he was only inviting the fan to come shake his hand. The MLS league office didn't buy it, handing Beckham a $1,000 fine. In the Galaxy's next game at Kansas City, Beckham had another incident with a heckler, in which the Englishman exchanged angry words with the man and attempted to shake his hand before a throw-in during the middle of the game.

It was strange behavior by Beckham, who had kept his cool while enduring far worse treatment from fans in England after his '98 World Cup red card. Most observers expected that Beckham would embark on a charm offensive upon returning to America, using his charisma to win back the Galaxy fans who were upset that he had skipped nearly twothirds of the MLS season. Instead, Beckham went the other way. He refused to apologize to Galaxy fans, calling the L.A. Riot Squad "a disgrace." He started wearing short-sleeved jerseys for the first time, showing off his hard-man tattoos. He got in the faces of his opponents after hard challenges like a man possessed.

Say hello to David Beckham, heel. The apotheosis of Beckham the Villain came against Seattle on August 15, when he drew his first MLS red card in the seventeenth minute on a reckless studs-up challenge against Peter Vagenas, his friend and former Galaxy teammate. Playing down a man, L.A. fell 2-0 at home and lost the suspended Beckham for the next game as well. It was an odd time for Galaxy fans, whose team was on a roll -- the Seattle game was L.A.'s only league loss in a ten-game stretch -- even though its most famous player was struggling on the field. In the Galaxy's first six league games following Beckham's return, he provided zero goals and just one assist despite playing in the central midfield.

If there was one moment that turned around Beckham's MLS season, it came on August 29 against Chivas USA. In the eightieth minute of a scoreless game on national television, the ball bounded toward Beckham after a throw-in near the Chivas penalty box. Beckham raced toward the ball and struck it with a piece of world-class skill, bouncing his shot off the ground, off the Chivas goalpost, and into the net. The sold-out crowd roared, including the L.A. Riot Squad, as the Galaxy finished off the 1-0 victory. Winning solves a lot of problems, and L.A. won consistently down the stretch, beating San Jose 2--0 in the regularseason finale to go to 12-6-12 and earn the Western Conference's top seed in the MLS playoffs.

By any measure it was a remarkable turnaround, not just for the Galaxy (which had tied for the league's worst record in 2008) but for Beckham himself. Under Arena, the Beckham experiment was finally about the soccer, and it became clearer than ever that Beckham had a special connection on the field with Donovan, who was enjoying perhaps his finest year as a professional. Donovan's twelve goals and six assists helped earn him his first MLS MVP award, and it was a Beckham -- Donovan connection that made the difference in the first round of the playoffs against Chivas. With the teams deadlocked on a 2-2 aggregate late in the second leg, Beckham unleashed a jaw-dropping forty-yard diagonal rainbow� the kind of pass that only Beckham would even try-- that hit Donovan in mid-stride. The American passed to teammate Mike Magee, who drew the penalty that Donovan would convert for the decisive goal.

There was more of the same in the one-game Western Conference final against Houston the following week. The Galaxy and Dynamo were scoreless until extra-time, when Berhalter bundled in the game's first goal off a scramble in the box following a Beckham free kick. Donovan sealed the 2-0 victory with a penalty kick, and the lasting image from the night was Donovan and Beckham celebrating together, arms around each other's shoulders, gleefully commemorating the Galaxy's first trip to MLS's championship game since 2005. The controversy from July was a distant memory. "To their credit, they've dealt with it in a professional way," said teammate Chris Klein, who was close to both Beckham and Donovan. "The way they've played on the field takes care of a lot of other issues that could be hanging out there. They've both been fantastic."