Tomorrow evening, David Beckham returns to the MLS when his Los Angeles Galaxy travel to New Jersey to play Red Bull New York.
The burning question: does anyone care?
The fans, the media, his teammates, Beckham himself, do any of them care?
When he first crossed the pond, some were claiming he would be the soccer savior in America.
While savior was an extreme title to give him, there was some legitimacy in the idea that Beckham’s name was popular enough that it had crossover appeal outside of soccer to draw more casual, or non-fans, to MLS and the sport as a whole.
Beckham’s arrival did generate a lot of buzz about MLS and soccer in the media and at the gates.
The Galaxy had the highest average attendance in the league, and when they were the visitors, the home team saw an incremental spike in attendance, like when over 66 thousand people showed up to see Beckham’s first trip to Giants Stadium against the Red Bulls. Beckham jersey sales also did well.
However, a few things really hampered his first season.
For starters, Beckham’s health was not 100%.
Knee problems, including a sprained right medial collateral ligament, kept him from making only seven appearances in his first season with the club, in which a handful he only came on as a substitute.
The Galaxy were also a terrible team.
Losing never helps a player’s profile, and Los Angeles lost a lot. They were eliminated from the playoffs, which meant one of the bigger stages of the MLS season would be without its biggest marketing tool.
Another disappointing aspect was the level of expectations that were placed, unfairly, on Beckham.
What non-soccer fans expected out of the player from the two biggest clubs in the world, Manchester United and Real Madrid, was for him to dominate the league and score a lot of goals.
What they didn’t understand was that that wasn’t the type of player Beckham was.
Beckham was a playmaking midfielder, a facilitator of the ball, with extremely good touch and a deadly free kick. He was not a goal scorer.
Spectators were building him up to be something he wasn’t, and when he didn’t deliver, they felt something was wrong with him and they were cheated by all the media hype.
What didn’t help Beckham’s case was that along with not scoring he was also not doing a great job of distributing the ball.
In his Galaxy career, he has only registered a total of 12 assists, certainly not what one would expect from a player of his caliber. Just last season, Columbus Crew midfielder Guillermo Barros Schelotto lead the league with 19 assists.
Nothing was worse, though, when Beckham was loaned out to AC Milan in the offseason.
One reason for the loan was because Beckham wanted to keep playing at a high level in order to continue to fight for a spot on the English national team.
While one can never berate a guy for wanting to play for his country, it is unfortunate that he would only be considered if he were playing abroad.
Things got uglier when he stepped on the field.
Beckham looked like a rejuvenated player. He scored two goals in his first four matches, assisted a number of others, and looked to be playing at top form again.
It was great to see a player who had been in MLS the past season and a half performing at a high level in the Serie A, but one couldn’t help but wonder why Beckham couldn’t perform this way in an L.A. uniform.
Where was this skill, talent, and production?
Why was it all of a sudden just showing up in Italy and not the States?
Then he pushed to extend his loan.
Beckham was supposed to return in time for the beginning of the MLS season. Yet he forced his hand into staying with Milan until the end of the Serie A season, not making him eligible to return to MLS until today. What Beckham really wanted was to be sold to Milan for good.
Now Beckham looked like a player who didn’t want to be a part of the league.
All his talk about being serious about doing his part to make America a soccer nation, and not just being another paycheck, seemed to be for naught. Comparing and contrasting his play in L.A. to Milan made him look uninspired on the field in L.A., and now he was backing it up with his contract dispute.
Beckham didn’t want to be here.
Recently, Beckham has made headlines again, but this time as part of the subject of a book.
The Beckham Experiment is written by Sports Illustrated writer Grant Wahl, detailing Beckham’s arrival in the states and impact on the game here.
One of the interview subjects is Galaxy teammate Landon Donovan. Donovan rips into Beckham and the perception that he didn’t want to be here.
"He's not shown (he's a good team-mate). I can't think of another guy where I'd say he wasn't a good team-mate, he didn't give everything through all this, he didn't still care. But with (Beckham), I'd say no, he wasn't committed,” said Donovan.
"Let's say he does stay here for three more years. I'm not going to spend the next three years of my life doing it this way. This is [expletive] miserable. I don't want to have soccer be this way."
While Beckham countered that he’d never been called a bad teammate anywhere he’s played, it’s tough to believe he’s been completely committed to MLS and the Galaxy.
He was much more explosive on the field at AC Milan, like playing for them mattered more to him.
Between the stark difference in play and his push to stay at Milan and be away from L.A., the team he is under contract for, has left a sour taste in many people’s mouths. Now that he’s finally coming back, it’s tough to tell if anybody cares anymore.
There will be some attention on the Galaxy-Red Bull game, especially two days after Wahl’s book came out.
How will Beckham and Donovan’s playing relationship be?
Will Beckham even be fit enough to play?
How much media coverage will the game receive?
Most importantly, will Beckham, after all this controversy, still be enough of a draw to bring fans out to Giants Stadium to watch a miserable Red Bulls team?
Beckham better put on a show in New Jersey like he did in Italy, because we know he’s capable, and if he doesn’t, this “savior” will become a fallen angel, and may take the intrigue of the league down with him if he isn’t careful.