On a warm afternoon at the Santiago Bernabéu in June 2007, David Beckham had played his last game for Real Madrid. His four-year spell had come to an end with a league title after a dramatic win against Real Mallorca. An ankle injury saw him substituted on 65 minutes for José Antonio Reyes, but Beckham had left as a winner and had picked up his first LaLiga winners medal since joining Los Blancos.
His new destination would be the polar opposite of one of the richest and most successful sides in the world. Beckham was going to America to play for the LA Galaxy. On paper it seemed like a strange move, Beckham was trading playing with the likes of Raúl for Abel Xavier in a league that had been on the verge of bankruptcy.
The MLS up to this point hadn’t been a success. Declining attendances since the opening season alongside poor wages, bad pitches, low television ratings and sides folding had put the league in a bad state. Beckham and his management realised, though, that if he could be the person to finally get Americans to understand and like ‘soccer’, his brand value and reputation would be bigger than it already was. Beckham was the only footballer that had the power to do this. He was way more than a footballer, he was David Beckham.
Even though he was 31, and maybe wasn’t quite as good as he used to be, this was probably still the most famous player in the world that was coming to Los Angeles. The MLS even made an exception for their salary cap to allow the Galaxy to sign him. The designated player rule, or Beckham rule as it is commonly known as, allowed teams in the MLS to sign one player that could earn more than the cap.
Beckham’s wages were crazy for the MLS. The lowest earner at the Galaxy for the 2007 season was goalkeeper Lance Friesz, who was on just under $13,000 for the whole year. Beckham was on $6,500,000.
But it was worth it for the Galaxy, the hype surrounding the transfer had been the biggest for any transfer in the MLS so far and it had received global attention. 700 media members around the world had been at his unveiling press conference and America was finally paying attention to their own league that had been neglected.
The hype was all leading up to Beckham’s first game in a friendly against Chelsea at the newly built 27,000-seater Home Depot Center and ESPN had spent a serious amount of money on an advertising campaign for the game to the tune of The Beatles’ Hello, Goodbye. This was one of the only chances Beckham would get to prove to America that the MLS was worth something to invest their time into.
However, there was a problem. Beckham was injured. The ankle injury he picked up in Madrid was still there. Normally, Beckham wouldn’t have played after picking up another injury for England which led to this current one but due to Real Madrid’s title race going down to the last day he didn’t have a choice.
This was a disaster for everyone involved. The show was Beckham. No one else cared about any of the other LA Galaxy players or even a strong Chelsea side that had travelled and was managed by José Mourinho. If Beckham didn’t play, the whole project could’ve failed before it had even kicked off. The whole fanfare and the massive advertising campaigns would all lead to nothing.
Beckham had no option but to play, even if it was only for the last ten minutes.
The excitement was evident before Beckham had even kicked a ball. As the former England captain took his seat on the bench at the Home Depot Center, he was mauled by photographers five rows back all trying to get a shot of him at his new club. This was the attention that was now being brought to the Galaxy. All Beckham and his teammates had to do now was deliver on the pitch.
78 minutes in, an injured Beckham unzipped his tracksuit and stepped onto the Galaxy turf for the first time. He shouldn’t have come on at all but he didn’t really have a choice. A sold-out Home Depot Center was there to see Beckham and no one else. The reception Beckham got was as expected. Screaming girls, cheering and cardboard signs were all over the place. There was more bad news for Beckham, though.
His debut had been a success with all things taken into account. For 12 minutes he played fine, enough to impress a crowd that, for the majority, had never seen a game of football before. But, in the last minute of the game, Chelsea’s Steve Sidwell decided to throw himself into a challenge with Beckham. Sidwell’s leaning boot landed straight onto Beckham’s left ankle, studds up.
This was the worst thing that could’ve happened in this game. Despite managing to continue for the last minute of the game, Beckham had received another knock to his ankle. Although it wasn’t as bad as first feared, it didn’t exactly help the rush to get him back to fitness.
As Beckham had joined halfway through the MLS season, there was no pre-season or time for him to get fit. The schedule was relentless. Beckham missed the next four Galaxy matches because of this. As Beckham and his wife hosted a massive welcoming party that featured guests such as Tom Cruise and Will Smith (which the Galaxy players were invited to), form on the pitch suffered.
The problem was that apart from Beckham and Landon Donovan, the team was average at best. This was by far the worst side Beckham had played in. Beckham could see things that other players couldn’t. There was no point in playing 40-yard passes or delivering perfect corners if no-one was good enough to do anything with them. Alan Gordon (the attacker Beckham came on for against Chelsea) was wasting a lot of chances.
There were also more doubts as to whether Galaxy coach Frank Yallop could deal with a character such as Beckham. Yallop had played most of his career at Ipswich Town and had managed the Canada national team and the San Jose Earthquakes before joining the Galaxy. That was hardly the pedigree of someone like Sir Alex Ferguson or Fabio Capello.
However, all things considered, he had got off to an okay start so far. The league position wasn’t ideal but there was still a slim chance that the Galaxy could reach the playoffs and he had seemed to have controlled the relationship between Beckham and Donovan to the best he could. Beckham was now captain and Donovan was now no longer the most important player in the squad and was annoyed that he’d had his armband taken off him.
The results still weren’t improving, though, and no Beckham in the squad didn’t help anyone. A 0-0 draw away to a poor Toronto FC side and a defeat in the SuperLiga (a now-defunct tournament between the US and Mexican clubs) to Mexican side Guadalajara didn’t improve the confidence surrounding the team.
Beckham finally made his MLS debut in Washington D.C. A bland 1-0 defeat was the start of a miserable end to the season. Beckham came on as a late substitute but couldn’t influence the game enough to change the score.
Another 1-0 defeat followed away to the New England Revolution and the pressure was now on. This wasn’t what was meant to happen. Beckham was supposed to change the fortunes of the team and inspire them to the playoffs. Not apply more pressure. The schedule that the MLS had given the Galaxy was also starting to take its toll. As a way of giving everyone their spread of the Beckham dollars, four games were played consecutively away in 13 days over two countries and 2000km. None of them ended in a win.
The Galaxy’s last game in this miserable run ended in a 5-4 defeat to the New York Red Bulls. Beckham had got two assists from a free-kick and a corner in the first half but it still wasn’t enough. Despite the Galaxy clawing the game back from 4-2 to 4-4 in the 82nd minute from another Beckham corner, it still wasn’t enough. The Red Bulls prevailed after Juan Pablo Ángel reclaimed the lead in the last minute of the game after tapping in from a parried shot.
It was typical of the Galaxy’s season. The fragile and aged defence had let the team down once more. Beckham played his first 90 minutes despite him not being 100% fit on the unforgiving, artificial surface.
For Beckham there would be more fatigue to come. He headed straight from New York to London to Los Angeles in five days. He was called up to the England national team for a game against Germany and then the very next day headed back to LA to play against Chivas USA in a 3-0 defeat.
Two more defeats followed before a 3-1 win at home to the Colorado Rapids on the last day of the season. Not that it mattered, a playoff spot was long gone. It rounded off a disaster to Beckham’s first season. It cost Yallop his job. Despite guiding the side to the final of the SuperLiga, the club’s hierarchy wasn’t happy with the results in the MLS. It wasn’t good enough. A second from bottom finish in the Western Conference, 10 points off the playoffs was a poor return.
Beckham later summed up the season as ‘frankly a nightmare’ when talking to CBS. It was.
If Beckham thought his first season in the States hadn’t gone according to plan, the second would be a lot worse. The 2008 MLS season was the worst in Galaxy history. In reality, it was doomed ever since the new manager of the Galaxy was announced at the Home Depot Center on 8th November 2007. Former Netherlands, AC Milan and Chelsea player Ruud Gullit had been announced as the new manager of the side, becoming the most paid manager in the history of the MLS.
On paper, it seemed like the appointment of Gullit as manager was a good one. The experience managing in Europe with Chelsea, Newcastle United and Feyenoord was far more than what Yallop had achieved and he had the personality that might’ve been able to control Beckham.
This was far from the case. European managers often do poorly in MLS. The league is very different to any league in the world with salary caps, draft picks and playoffs to decide the winner. As basic as this sounded, Gullit needed to understand the rules of the league before he became manager. He couldn’t just buy and sell players at wit’s end because the rules didn’t allow it.
Beckham had also gained more control of the club. Terry Byrne, Beckham’s personal manager, had somehow managed to become a paid employee of the Galaxy and was an advisor and consultant on the board of the club. It was allegedly Byrne that suggested Gullit to become the new manager and even worse, 19 entertainment, the entertainment arm responsible for the Spice Girls, Amy Whinehouse and American Idol belonging to Simon Fuller (who was Beckham’s advisor in moving to the Galaxy) was now on the hoardings for the Gullit press conference. This was a complete disaster for the Galaxy.
Somehow, the power had now been shifted into the hands of Beckham and his team. General manager, Alexi Lalas may as well have been made redundant. It wasn’t him that made the decisions anymore. Who controlled the club anymore?
One of Gullit’s first signings was also a pathetic mess. Former Nigerian international and Chelsea left-back, Celestine Babayaro was signed as a much-needed defender after the Galaxy’s problems the previous year in conceding goals.
He was released after 45 minutes of playing a game in a pre-season tour against FC Seoul.
Babayaro thought he was joining a super-club. Not one that stayed in two-star hotels and flew in economy. This combined with a lack of effort and fitness concerns saw him gone after just over a month.
Gullit’s other major signing was Guatemalan striker Carlos ‘El Pescadito’ Ruiz. Ruiz had re-joined after an earlier spell with the Galaxy in the early 2000s. At the time of signing, he was the eighth-highest top scorer in the history of the MLS. Like Babayaro, he seemed like a solid signing. What the Galaxy didn’t know though was that he was actually carrying a knee injury that needed surgery. Ruiz was also on high wages as well. Because of the salary cap, Donovan and Ruiz took up most of the cap, meaning that there was no room to sign any other players that would make a significant impact.
A 4-0 loss away to Colorado in the opening game of the 2008 season was a sign of things to come. Gullit was already perplexing everyone with his bizarre tactics of putting Beckham and Donovan on either wing meaning they couldn’t pass to each other. Xavier was also showing his age by giving away a penalty and then getting sent off after squaring up to the referee. Ruiz topped off a horrific start to the season after getting another injury to his knee which meant he’d be out for six weeks.
After the game, several players then spoke out about the fact that despite having possibly one of the best players in the world from dead-ball situations, the side hadn’t been practising set-pieces in training at all. Unbelievable.
The form throughout the season was just way too inconsistent to mount any sort of playoff challenge. Some games, everything clicked. Take the 5-2 win over Chivas USA on matchday five as an example. Beckham and Donovan clicked together and played like the partnership that they were supposed to and tore apart the Chivas defence.
When things didn’t go to plan though, it was a catastrophe. Gullit’s defence was abysmal. Xavier was way too old and he had rookies next to him as after the Babayaro scandal, the Galaxy were short on quality defenders. There had only been two clean sheets kept inside the first 10 games.
And by the time the second derby of the season came around against Chivas USA on matchday 16, Gullit’s side had conceded 30 goals. This wasn’t sustainable at all. There were no tactics or any resemblance of cohesion. Sometimes Gullit would put six attackers on the pitch at once to try and score.
Several days after that game against Chivas, which was another disappointing 1-1 draw, Gullit did the unthinkable and released Xavier from his contract. Xavier was gone but his high wages still cost the Galaxy as his contract had a clause that meant if he was released, his $156,000 wage would still count against his former club’s salary cap.
The controversy didn’t end there. Xavier then called a press conference and started to shame Gullit. Claiming that “he doesn’t respect players and the players are afraid to speak out because they could lose their jobs”. There was a power struggle at the Galaxy. No one knew who was in charge. Byrne, Gullit and Lalas all had conflicting views to each other and were making decisions just to get a one-up over the other person. A 4-0 defeat away to FC Dallas then followed. This was now a complete crisis. The players had now turned on Gullit. Including Beckham, whose form had also turned sour and for someone that was supposed to be a captain, he was staying silent on a lot of the problems at the club.
Another defeat followed in San Jose. This would be the final straw for Gullit and Lalas. After this game, both had both ‘parted company.’ (jumped before they were pushed) Two months without a win was unacceptable. The Galaxy owner, Tim Leiweke had no choice. For a team that had one of America’s most exciting players in Donovan and Beckham in the side, to be bottom of the Western Conference was an embarrassment.
It’s a good job that the MLS doesn’t have promotion or relegation as this side would’ve definitely have been relegated. It was spineless.
Former U.S national team manager, Bruce Arena was announced as permanent manager in the following weeks and this time Beckham had nothing to do with the process as his advisor, Byrne had now been removed from the board.
Beckham was also starting to annoy the fans at the Home Depot Center. The Galaxy fans felt that he wasn’t committed to the cause and was only in LA to pick up a big cheque. Donovan had actually been the better and more consistent player since Beckham’s arrival. Injuries alongside inconsistency and fatigue had all played their part in not getting the most out of Beckham’s potential. The only positive of Beckham’s 2008 season was a goal he scored from his own half. Everything else was extremely disappointing.
Beckham’s relationship didn’t improve after he missed one of the last Galaxy games of the season to play for England in a friendly, only to then travel to Beijing for the closing ceremony of the 2008 Olympics and then not travel back to Los Angeles to watch the side he was captain of. It was clear to see that this failure (so far) of a project was not Beckham’s main priority. This winless run had now stretched to 12 games. Beckham was fed up and was looking to leave. His new destination? AC Milan on loan.