It seems that one of the most dynamic partnerships that MLS has ever seen was nothing more than smoke and mirrors, hiding a fractured relationship bathed in turmoil.
In a column set to be published in the July 6th edition of Sports Illustrated, columnist Grant Wahl places the Landon Donovan/David Beckham dynamic under a powerful microscope. What follows is a damning expose that places one of football's most recognizable stars in a very unflattering light.
The troubles between the two date back to July 2005 in the days before Beckham arrived in Los Angeles.
In meetings with then-Galaxy coach Frank Yallop and then-GM Alexi Lalas, Donovan was told that the higher-ups in the Galaxy hierarchy wanted him to surrender the captain's armband to Beckham.
Donovan felt disrespected by the club's owners, but had no choice in the matter. He could fight the change and cause problems with Beckham right from the start, or he could give up the armband and be seen as a magnanimous teammate.
But, according to Wahl, owner Tim Leiweke wasn't behind the change like Yallop and Lalas had implied. In reality, Beckham's close friend and manager Terry Byrne requested the change.
This was the first sign that Beckham would never be able to be "just one of the guys" in Los Angeles. It's a rare occasion that a player has this much pull over personnel moves, but the LA front office seemed very willing to accommodate Beckham's ego in return for quality on the pitch and merchandise sales in the stores.
Controversy struck again in 2007 with the appointment of Ruud Gullit as manager.
Galaxy GM Alexi Lalas was universally panned after Gullit's tenure ended in failure. The Dutch legend lasted for half a season at the Home Depot Center and was criticized by many members of the club—notably Abel Xavier—for having divided the locker room beyond repair by pandering to star players.
Gullit was seen as an outsider, somebody with no understanding of the American game and no awareness of an MLS talent not named David Beckham.
Why would Lalas hand a seemingly unqualified coach a three-year, $6 million contract?
Well, Lalas apparently had nothing to do with the decision at all. Nobody in the Galaxy organization had a hand in the hiring.
Tim Leiweke had hired Byrne as a "special consultant" and left Byrne to conduct the coaching search. It was Byrne who recommended Gullit, and it was Byrne who took the first steps in the negotiations.
So by extension, it was Byrne who was responsible for making possibly the biggest hiring mistake in MLS history. Beckham's entourage was undermining the Galaxy's hierarchy once again.
Any doubts that Gullit was the worst hire in league history should be erased by allegations that the club didn't practice set pieces at all during the preseason, and that Gullit was often the last to arrive and first to leave training.
It's said that bad things come in threes, and the Beckham experiment was no exception. During Gullit's tenure, his teammates began to realize that while he was a great footballer, he was by no means a great captain.
Defender Greg Vanney said that Beckham never tried to rally his teammates during rough patches, such as the three-month losing streak that the team endured that summer. Nor did Beckham bother to appear at optional practice days. He didn't stick up for teammates that were being wrongly criticized by the coaching staff.
The last straw was when Beckham had begun considering the loan deal with AC Milan. He began distancing himself from his teammates and allowed his frustration with poor form to show through on the pitch. Mind you, this was poor form that his entourage was at least partially at fault.
At a crucial match in Houston late in the season, Beckham didn't even show up to support his teammates. He was suspended, but Donovan was still upset.
"All that we care about at a minimum is that he committed himself to us," Donovan said. "As time has gone on, that has not proven to be the case in many ways -- on the field, off the field. Does the fact that he earns that much money come into it? Yeah. If someone's paying you more than anybody in the league, more than double anybody in the league, the least we expect is that you show up to every game, whether you're suspended or not. Show up and train hard. Show up and play hard. Maybe he's not a leader, maybe he's not a captain. Fair enough. But at a minimum you should bust your ass every day. That hasn't happened. And I don't think that's too much for us to expect. Especially when he's brought all this on us."
Strong words from the normally restrained Donovan. He's never been one of the more outspoken members of the footballing community, so when he speaks up in this manner, people should listen.
The verbal onslaught would continue and intensify.
"Let's say he does stay here three more years," Donovan said. "I'm not going to spend the next three years of my life doing it this way. This is f------ miserable. I don't want to have soccer be this way."
A confrontation was staved off by virtue of Beckham's loan to Milan, but he'll still be returning to the Galaxy for the latter months of the 2009 season to play side-by-side with Donovan for a few more weeks.
Will there be drama when Beckham comes back in a couple of weeks? Undoubtedly. Did he bring it on himself? That seems to be the case. He managed to alienate teammates like Eddie Lewis and upset the best player in US history by letting his ego run rampant.
These recent reports put the Beckham era in a new light. It's already been widely panned as a failure because of poor results on the pitch. Now it will be seen as a failure because Beckham helped create these results.
With these most recent revelations, I can't say I'll be sorry to see Beckham leave. He has a clause in his contract that will allow him to opt out after this season, and he'll likely leave town. MLS can benefit from star power, but not if the stars are going to sabotage their clubs from the inside.
Quotes and other information for this article were taken from Grant Wahl's column in the July 6th edition of Sports Illustrated.
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