Monday, November 21, 2011

LA Galaxy, 2011 MLS Cup Champs!

The LA Galaxy won the 2011 MLS Cup last night, capping off a momentous period in soccer history in America.  David Beckham's worldwide publicized move to the US in his relative prime back in 2007 brought massive publicity to our domestic soccer league, which ultimately lead to critical advancements for the MLS including, more soccer-specific stadiums, bigger television deals, mainstream (ESPN) coverage and more world-class soccer stars willing to spend a few of their latter years here (ie Thierry Henry, Robbie Keane, etc).  While Beckham's widely-publicized 5 year, 250 million dollar contract was a calculated exaggeration, his actual contract 5 years, $32.5 mil was a phenomenal deal for the Galaxy.

Beckham's celebrated arrival in 2007 in many ways mirrored Pele's arrival to the NASL in 1975.  Like Beckham, Pele brought instant publicity and fame to the domestic league and attracted other big name stars to the US.  Though the NASL eventually folded and soccer's possibilities as a US mainstream sport seemingly died, the effects of that excitement undoubtedly had an effect on US Soccer's re-emergence to the World Cup in 1990 and beyond.

I still remember attending Beckham's first game as a member of the Galaxy - a July friendly vs visiting Chelsea.  It was a level of excitement and worldwide attention to our domestic league that hadn't been seen since Pele's NASL days.  But this time, with a stronger infrastructure and proper financial backing, it seems that the MLS will not be folding anytime soon.

Though the Designated Player rule has been in effect for over half a decade (primarily put in place to create salary space for Beckham), this championship is the first to ever be won by a DP.  (In fact, LA actually has three - Donovan, Beckham and Keane.)  With all the publicity, it would definitely have been a failure had Beckham not won the MLS championship during his time here.  Also, because LA had won the Western conference for the 3rd straight year and was close in 2009 to the title, losing to RSL in penalty kicks, it actually felt like a long-awaited coronation last night.  I think the MLS needed this championship and one last worldwide spotlight moment with Beckham, to validate the success of the move they made in 2007.

Many argue that Beckham never really gave the Galaxy his all during those 5 years and was never truly committed to the soccer movement in the US.  They point to his two loan spells with AC Milan early in 2009 and 2010 and his supreme dedication to making England's 2010 WC squad as proof.  Even in this past offseason, he trained with Tottenham which brought another onslaught of transfer questions.  It is true that Landon Donovan's public frustration with an uncommitted Beckham in 2009 was probably justified.

As I wrote in 2009, I thought that Beckham initially made his decision to come to LA when Real Madrid and England closed its doors to him.  But when he earned his way back into good graces for England, his focus immediately shifted there.  Playing for AC Milan was necessary to please Capello for WC selection.  (His professionalism and work ethic which won over Capello after being unfairly marginalized at Real is extremely commendable.)  It is absolutely understandable that his commitment to playing for England in WC 2010 outweighed his commitment to the soccer movement in the States.  MLS fans should have grasped that and been willing to receive him back after WC 2010 knowing that playing on the world's greatest stage would have brought the spotlight back with him again to the Galaxy.  After his unfortunate achilles injury early 2010 ended his WC hopes, Beckham has really shown what kind of player he can be with his focus here.  His MVP worthy play this season culminated last night with a dominant midfield performance on a torn hamstring, no less.  Let's review his 5 year stretch with LA.

2007 - Played sparingly after celebrated signing in the summer, LA missed playoffs.
2008 - Full season in LA but missed playoffs.
2009 - 1st half loan to AC Milan, July return to LA, lost in championship game.
2010 - 1st half loan to Milan, March achilles injury, Sept LA return, lost in Western Conf Finals.
2011 - Full season with LA, Best Record in MLS, Comeback Player of the Year, MLS Cup Champions.

 My point is that Beckham didn't need to be completely focused on soccer here in LA to accomplish MLS' goal of raising soccer awareness nationwide.  His mere presence, especially during the summer club friendly months, was more than enough.  Had he made accomplished his goal of making England's WC roster, it would have been Beckham-mania all over the States, especially since England and the US were slated to play each other in the group stage.  However, it was true that after his injury, there was a lull in interest about Beckham, as US Soccer took over the nation's soccer interest quota.  Therefore, he (and the Galaxy) now needed this championship to reclaim the spotlight and validate his time here.

Beckham's playing resume now looks like this:

- 1999 UEFA Champions League Title (Manchester United)
- '96, '97, '99, '00, '01, '03 Premier League Titles (Manchester United)
- 2007 La Liga Title (Real Madrid)
- 2011 MLS Cup Champion (Los Angeles Galaxy)

- 115 International caps for England (could still play for England in Olympics)
- 58 caps as England captain

As for the future, I'm assuming Beckham's time here in the States could very well be over.  Though his family seems to be settled in here in California, the Beckhams are nowhere near the international stars that they probably feel they should be.  They probably need to go back to Europe.  David has played for the most storied teams in each league - Man U, Real Madrid, AC Milan and Los Angeles.  Now, he seems to be most strongly linked with Paris Saint-Germaine, France.  They're not exactly the most storied of all French teams, but they're based in Paris - Victoria will probably like being there.  (After the Beckham tour rips through Ligue 1, they can tackle the Bundesliga last.  Bayern Munich could use more dough.)  At the very least, his emotional state after the game seems to indicate that he knows his playing days here is done.  I do hope he stays since he's really only given LA one full successful season.  But if not, at least it was a Hollywood ending.

As for Donovan, this MLS Cup was his 4th league championship.  With the SJ Earthquakes, he had won in 2001 and 2003 and in LA, he previously won in 2005.  So even though the Galaxy are only 3 for 7 in the championship game overall, Landon is actually 4 of 5, with two MLS Cup MVPs.  Many have argued that he has taken a slight backseat to Beckham and Keane this season but it was fitting that the Galaxy captain scored the title-clinching goal.  Also apropos, fellow DPers, Beckham and Keane, both assisted on the play.

It is interesting to note that Donovan's criticism of Beckham came at a time where he was also open to European opportunities.  He had returned to Germany in a failed loan at Bayern Munich from Nov 2008 to March 2009.  Starting in Jan to Mar of 2010, he had an extremely successful stint at Everton of the EPL (including being named Everton's January player of the month).  Undoubtedly, had Everton been able to afford him, Donovan would have gladly stayed on there.  Now that he's won his 2nd title here in LA, Donovan should probably be willing to give Europe one last shot.  At 29, he is probably nearing the end of his prime.

Overlooked in all of this is Bruce Arena, who took a struggling (and bickering) side midseason in 2008 and won the regular season Western Conference in all 3 of the subsequent full seasons at the helm.  Not a bad resume considering the fact that he led US Soccer to its most successful 8 year stretch before that.  All in all, he's won 3 MLS Cup titles ('96, '97, '11) and 3 Supporters' Shields (best regular season record, which is how they determine championships in Europe).

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