David Beckham’s “Coming to America” story began at a crossroads for the English star. His contract was running out, and Real Madrid were dragging their feet in making a decision about extending his contract. Beckham was 32 and quite frankly, no longer a “Galactico.” What unfolded next would shock the football world.
In January 2007, David Beckham announced that he had signed a five-year deal to move to America to play for the Los Angeles Galaxy. The move shocked football fans and apparently offended some at Madrid. After the move was announced, head coach Fabio Capello announced Beckham wouldn’t play again for the club. A month later he changed his mind and Beckham played until the end of the season.
Real Madrid president, Ramon Calderon, in a speech announced that Beckham was “going to Hollywood to be half a film star.” That was not the case according to Beckham, who said, “I’m coming to be part of the team, to work hard and to hopefully win things. With me, it’s about football.”
Don’t get confused, this wasn’t the first time a major global footballing icon had come to the United States. During the 1970s, the North American Soccer League was filled with the best names in the game. Pele, Franz Beckenbauer, Johan Cruyff, Gerd Muller, George Best, and many more all laced it up in the States. But American audiences didn’t seem to care, and by 1985 the league had folded.
Even Major League Soccer had tried to lure some of football’s big names to play in the league in its early days. Carlos Valderrama, Hristo Stoichkov, Lothar Matthaus and Jorge Campos all suited up for MLS clubs in the league’s first few seasons.
This felt different though. It felt different because Beckham wasn’t just a good soccer player coming to play in MLS. He was a global icon on and off the pitch. Strikingly handsome, an incredibly talented professional athlete playing at one of the world’s biggest clubs, and married to a global pop icon in Victoria’ Posh Spice’ Beckham. This wasn’t just a good player coming to MLS, it was a global icon coming to the competition and that had never happened before.
Beckham moved to Los Angeles on a free transfer and a deal that paid him around $6.5 million per year. The move paid dividends immediately for the Galaxy. The club immediately signed a new kit sponsorship deal worth $20 million. 11,000 new season ticket packages were sold, and all of the luxury suites at the Home Depot Center were sold out. Overnight, the Los Angeles Galaxy became a global brand.
The move would cause permanent changes to be made to the Major League Soccer rules as well. The competition has a hard salary cap in place to maintain an even playing field for all of its clubs. Agree with it or not, the salary cap is essentially there to maintain the security of the league and all its teams.
There was no way the David Beckham deal would fit into the MLS salary cap, so a new rule which became known as the “David Beckham Rule” was put into place. This new rule allowed clubs to employ a “Designated Player” whose contract was not included in the team’s wage bill and would not affect the salary cap.
The MLS season runs spring to fall, so Beckham joined in July when his contract with Madrid had expired. At his unveiling, he was greeted by over 5,000 fans and 700 media members. The attention was unprecedented.
After all the fanfare and excitement of his arrival, David Beckham finally stepped onto the field as a Galaxy player on July 21 in a friendly against Chelsea. Beckham was nursing an ankle injury that he picked up in his final Madrid match, so he came on as a substitute in the 78th minute. The game was a star-studded event, with many of Hollywood’s elite in attendance.
The play on the field was largely irrelevant as it was a mid-season friendly for the Galaxy and preseason for Chelsea. However, that didn’t stop Chelsea’s Steve Sidwell from launching an extra time slide tackle at the already-injured ankle of Beckham. The tackle pushed back Beckham’s injury recovery, and he missed the Galaxy’s next 4 matches.
Beckham made his first start for LA on August 15 against DC United. In this game, Beckham also earned his first Galaxy yellow card, goal and assist. Fittingly, the goal came from a free-kick. With that, the David Beckham era in Los Angeles was finally off and running.
Later that month, Beckham injured his right knee in a CONCACAF SuperLiga Final against Mexican side Pachuca. An MRI revealed he had sprained his MCL and would be out for six weeks.
He returned from the injury in time for the final home match of the season. The Galaxy were eliminated from playoff contention on the final matchday of the season, in which Beckham came on as a substitute. The England international finished his first half-season in Los Angeles with 1 goal and 3 assists in 8 league matches.
During the long MLS offseason, Beckham returned to England to train with Arsenal ahead of the upcoming season. He was determined to begin the season fit and sharp after his lackluster debut the previous summer.
The 2008 season had its ups and downs for Beckham and the Galaxy. Early in the season, they were flying high at the top of the Western Conference. Beckham had scored a beautiful goal against Cali Clasico rivals San Jose Earthquakes and then scored a 70-yard empty-net goal against Kansas City. The Galaxy’s excellent early season form would not last though, and the Galaxy would not make the playoffs for the second straight season.
Beckham finished the 2008 season with 5 goals and 10 assists in 25 league matches. These were hardly the numbers that Beckham was expected to put up upon his arrival in the league.
Was David Beckham ever a goal-scoring machine? No, and in fact, Beckham only ever scored double-digit goals in one season in his career. That isn’t the main role of a wide midfield player. However, that didn’t excuse his overall struggles.
In an attempt to get Beckham more involved in the offensive attack, Beckham was often deployed in a more central role. While Beckham was once a world-class wide midfielder, he was never a world-class number 10, and it showed. Beckham was obviously uncomfortable in the role, but he put in a shift when he was called upon.
In January 2009, Beckham announced that he would be joining Italian club AC Milan on a short-term loan to keep his fitness levels up. With the announcement, alarm bells went off all over the country. But Beckham was quick to reassure fans that this was not a permanent move and that he remained committed to playing in MLS.
Beckham was an instant success in Milan, and rumors began swirling again that he was looking to stay in Milan permanently. The rumors were confirmed when Beckham admitted he was looking to move to Milan permanently to lengthen his England career through the 2010 World Cup.
When Milan and LA were unable to come to an agreement over a transfer fee, the two clubs agreed that Beckham’s loan would be extended through the middle of July. This decision enraged Galaxy fans who booed Beckham and held up signs that read “Go Home Fraud” and “Part-Time Player” upon his arrival back in Los Angeles.
American soccer legend and Galaxy teammate Landon Donovan was one of the Angelenos upset by the decision, and it caused a rift between the two stars. “When David first came, I believed he was committed to what he was doing.” But that all changed according to Donovan. “He just flipped a switch and said ‘Uh-huh, I’m not doing it anymore…with him, I’d say no, he wasn’t committed.”
Despite Beckham’s absence and the animosity he faced when he returned, the Galaxy had a successful season. He was an essential part of the Galaxy’s improvement from 3rd to 1st in the Western Conference after his return. The Englishmen led the Galaxy to the Western Conference Final where they lost to Real Salt Lake in a penalty shootout. In the 2009 season, Beckham played in just 11 games for the Galaxy, scoring twice.
Beckham once again left for AC Milan in the offseason. Disaster struck in March while playing against Chievo when Beckham tore his left Achilles tendon. This kept him out for the next five months, which included the 2010 World Cup. Unfortunately, he would be unable to play in the tournament he had joined Milan to prepare for.
The injury also halted his return to LA Galaxy. Beckham made his season debut for the them on September 11 coming on as a substitute in a 3-1 win of the Columbus Crew. A month later Beckham scored a stunning free-kick in 2-1 win over city rivals Chivas USA. In October, he scored in a 2-1 win over FC Dallas that secured the Galaxy the top spot in the Western Conference and the MLS Supporters’ Shield, which is given to the team with the most regular-season points.
The Galaxy won their first-round tie against the Seattle Sounders 3-1 on aggregate but were forced out of the tournament in a 3-0 thrashing at the hands of FC Dallas in the conference finals. Beckham finished the 2010 season having played just 10 games for the Galaxy.
The David Beckham loan rumor mill started once again during the 2011 winter transfer window. Harry Redknapp tried to sign the player for Spurs but was told by the Galaxy that the move would not be happening. After Beckham’s injury in his previous loan spell, it’s easy to see why the Galaxy refused to let him leave.
It was a good thing they didn’t let him because things finally clicked for Beckham in the 2011 MLS season. Beckham had his best season in Los Angeles, and while he scored just two goals, he finished the season with 15 assists. One of the two goals he scored was an “Olimpico” scored directly from a corner kick against the Chicago Fire.
All the assists wouldn’t have meant anything to Beckham though without a trophy. After a successful cup run, Beckham and the Galaxy finally lifted the MLS Cup in a 1-0 win over the Houston Dynamo. Beckham provided the match-winning assist to Landon Donovan. With that Beckham had joined an elite list of players that had won the league in three different countries.
Beckham was named in the MLS Best XI after his stellar season. Amazingly, he had spent most of his playing time in the center of midfield, a role that had frustrated him earlier in his Galaxy career.
After the MLS Cup Beckham’s contract expired. There was speculation that at age 36 he would hang up the boots. There was also interest from French club Paris Saint-Germain. However, Beckham decided to stay in Los Angeles and signed a further two-year deal with the Galaxy.
The defending champs snuck into the MLS playoffs with a fourth-place finish in the Western Conference. Despite his team’s average performances, Beckham set a high for goals with the Galaxy with 7 and added another 9 assists.
The champions showed their pedigree when it mattered and made easy work of the MLS Playoffs en route to their second straight MLS Cup appearance. Despite having another year on his contract, Beckham announced that he would be leaving the Galaxy after the MLS Cup.
The Galaxy sent Beckham off a winner, as they again beat the Houston Dynamo to win the MLS Cup. The home fans gave Beckham a standing ovation as he was subbed off in the 89th minute.
In some ways, this was how it was supposed to end for Beckham in Los Angeles. It wasn’t as easy as anyone expected, but in the end, Beckham did what he said he was going to do — bring the Galaxy trophies.
Beckham played a total of 98 league matches for the Galaxy. He scored 18 times and had 40 assists in the league. David Beckham left behind a complicated legacy in Major League Soccer, but he won’t ever be forgotten.
Was it all worth it? Was David Beckham’s time in Major League Soccer a success?
Beckham himself set some lofty goals for his time in MLS. He stated that he wanted to increase the league’s profile, raise interest in soccer in the country, boost the level of play in the league and encourage other international stars to join MLS.
On the first goal, raising the league’s profile, it might seem like that’s an easy win for Beckham. People couldn’t stop talking about the move, and his friendly debut against Chelsea was advertised for two weeks ahead of the actual match.
But all the press was Beckham press, not MLS press. No one suddenly cared about what was going on around the league, they just cared what Beckham was doing. However, if people around the world know one MLS team, it’s the Galaxy, and that’s because of Beckham.
It’s possible to say that Beckham increased the interest in soccer around the country. When Beckham joined the league in 2007, the league had just 13 teams. When Major League Soccer kicks off in 2020, the league will be up to 26 teams, with an additional 4 teams planned to debut in the next few years.
Is this the work of Beckham’s stardom or just the league’s natural growth? Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber stated that “There is no doubt that MLS is far more popular and important here and abroad than it was when (Beckham) arrived.” So there’s that.
The quality of the play in MLS has been on a steady increase since the league’s inception. David Beckham’s arrival did, if anything, stunt the growth in the level of quality in Major League Soccer for one major reason — the Designated Player rule.
In attempting to draw fellow international talent to MLS and creating the Designated Player rule, MLS made itself a “retirement league.” Sure, European stars like Didier Drogba, Thierry Henry, and Andrea Pirlo all came to America. But their time here was more about collecting a paycheck once they could no longer make in it Europe, than advancing the game in the United States.
The proof of this is in the shift of the use of the Designated Player spots, which have now been increased to three per club. Many MLS clubs are now using those spots on young Central and South American talent who they can develop and sell on to European leagues. Former Atlanta United and current Newcastle United playmaker Miguel Almiron is a prime example of this.
Off the field, there is no question Beckham was a success for the LA Galaxy and Major League Soccer. Each season Beckham was in town LA Galaxy attendances rose. The Galaxy nearly doubled the revenue of all other MLS clubs in that timeframe.
The Beckham effect was felt all across the league. In 2008 a study showed that Galaxy attendance went up 7% to record high numbers for the club. But there was also an increase in attendance at Galaxy away matches too. People wanted to see David Beckham when he came to their town.
So David Beckham may not have made Major League Soccer a league to rival the great leagues of Europe, but neither did Pele. What he did do though was make the league and its clubs a whole lot of money which has helped to grow the league. The Beckham effect likely converted some casual fans too. It’s hard to deny David Beckham changed American soccer for the better, and for that fans should be grateful.
David Beckham LA Galaxy Stats
LA Galaxy Appearances: 98
LA Galaxy Goals: 18
LA Galaxy Assists: 40
Achievements in Major League Soccer: 2x MLS Cup Champion, 2x Supporters Shield Winner, 3x MLS All-Star, 1x MLS Best XI.