Excellent sports’ writing is not simply about analyzing players, teams or organizations. It’s largely about painting a picture that fits into society’s perceptions of the surrounding world. It’s about writing a narrative and properly explaining the parts. It’s about playing historian and social critic while discussing competitions and complex organizations.
Sports’ writing is an art form, and even though I enjoy Grant Wahl’s College Basketball and Soccer writing for SI.com, I was not sure how well he’d do writing one of the most important books in the history of American soccer.
The Beckham Experiment is a brilliantly crafted book. Wahl paints the picture of an organization at war with itself and the celebrity culture of European football and Hollywood colliding with the lunch pail scrappy attitude of the United States.
For the MLS and US Soccer fan, the book provides an objective and highly critical but fair narrative at how the Los Angeles Galaxy and parent company AEG operated from January 2007 until November 2008.
This book through groundbreaking reporting as well as objective analysis paints an accurate but somewhat disturbing picture of the LA Galaxy franchise. The assumptions many on the outside including myself have made for the past few years can be cleanly refuted by some of the new information revealed by Wahl.
For starters, Alexi Lalas while largely responsible for the decline of the Galaxy organization after Doug Hamilton’s death was in fact the sanest and most responsible person in the front office by 2008. Also interesting was the relationship between AEG and Simon Fuller’s “19″ based around the promotion of entertainment events including the Galaxy. AEG had in fact been in contact with team Beckham since 2002. This partnership became so extensive that the two organizations in fact merged for a time, with 19 in fact running the Galaxy.
Former England National Team and Chelsea back office staffer Terry Byrne, the best friend of David Beckham became the pivotal figure in the Galaxy after the 2007 season. Byrne, a former London cabbie who had burned out as a professional footballer at a young age began working for Chelsea in the mid 1990s. When Glen Hoddle, Chelsea’s manager took the England National Team job, Byrne went with him (while continuing his staff role at Chelsea where he’d work for Ruud Gullit) and his relationship with Beckham was hatched.
Following the coup of signing David Beckham, Lalas and manager Frank Yallop would often be on different pages. The type of players Yallop wanted to surround Beckham with, like the very technical Kyle Beckerman or Jeff Cunningham, one of the leading goal scorers in MLS history was nixed in favor of Lalas’ ideal players.
Yallop had played in England at Ipswich Town against David Beckham and had also played against Lalas when he was with the Tampa Bay Mutiny. He had also managed Landon Donovan with the San Jose Earthquakes. In short, the professional experiences of Yallop made him uniquely qualified to objectively judge the situation. But Tim Leiweke, and Alexi Lalas weren’t terribly interested in Yallop’s point of view. After Beckham’s arrival and the circus that ensued, Yallop would often retreat to the confidence of Landon Donovan. As we knew before reading this book, Yallop’s “resignation” to take the San Jose job was liberation for the manager.
Leiweke, for his part was the brains behind the “Beckham Experiment.” His goal which was largely influenced by Jurgen Klinsmann was to be the most European looking MLS club. This was a vision that was always bound to fail. But Leiweke’s public statements were so bold and made so confidently, few challenged his assertions within the Galaxy because they sounded so good.
It’s almost humorous to note Wahl’s comparison of Leiweke’s statement about MLS in ten years being a top tier league in US pro sports to Phil Woosnam’s similar statement in 1977 about the NASL. The NASL was in fact much closer to this vision in 1977 with large football stadiums being filled or close to being full and several teams signing well know foreign stars. But the NASL did not have the infrastructure or successful national team to fall back on that MLS does today. No question exists that unlike the NASL which was dead in 1987 that MLS will be thriving in 2017. But chances are MLS will still be struggling for mainstream sports media and fan recognition.
Leiweke was dissatisfied with the results in 2007, which saw the Galaxy struggle with Beckham on the pitch but make strides late in the year with Beckham injured thanks to the likes of Gavin Glinton, Carlos Pavon and Peter Vagenas. But Yallop wasn’t given the proper credit for this transformation and when the Galaxy faced off with Chicago in the final game with a playoff spot on the line, Beckham came on injured, late, and gave the ball away resulting in the winning Chicago goal by John Thorrginton. Wahl writes a great narrative and I know it is difficult to bring in every little detail, but this game needed more emphasis in my mind. Firstly, because it was a showdown with the other big MLS signing of the last five years, Cuauhtémoc Blanco, whose class performances for Chicago made Beckham look silly. Secondly, because the winning goal was scored by Thorrington, a US International who had come through Manchester United’s reserve system while Beckham was the public face of the club in the late 1990s. Wahl writes an excellent narrative, but this particular game being emphasized for the points above could have made a strong book even stronger.
After losing to Chicago, Leiweke, wanted to continue building a European oriented setup, and he forced the issue giving Terry Byrne license to essentially screen and hire coaches. That’s how the Galaxy ended up with Ruud Gullit who had been Byrne’s boss at Chelsea. Byrne as Wahl puts it had a “consistent and multifaceted presence with the Galaxy.” He had become a paid consultant to the team and in fact was higher on the pecking order than Lalas.
Once Gullit was hired, Lalas was completely marginalized. His one potential positive contribution to the Galaxy in 2008 was his insistence that star Guatemalan striker Carlos Ruiz be pursued. But once Ruiz returned to LA where he has starred for the Galaxy a few years back, he was quickly labeled “Lalas’ guy” by the European oriented duo of Byrne and Gullit and thus spent a frustrating half a season in Carson. The treatment of Ruiz, who after all took up a huge salary chunk under MLS arcane salary cap rules is very instructive in how Gullit dealt with players he associated with Lalas.
Lalas, to his great credit never broke ranks publicly. He was after all an AEG company man, but this book reveals his inner struggles, and should go a great length to rehabilitating Lalas’ tarnished image in American soccer circles.
Another common theme to come out of this book is the professional jealousy the greatest field player in US history; Landon Donovan exhibited towards David Beckham and his superstardom. Grant Wahl doesn’t portray it as such. This is my interpretation based on reading the book. But as someone who has typically been in Landon Donovan’s corner, the book reveals that Donovan for all his talk of being more mature than a few years ago, still has a fundamental streak of immaturity. I’ll explore the revelations about Donovan further in a future opinion piece.
That leads us to the central figure of the book himself, David Beckham. The irony is as Wahl points out repeatedly, Beckham himself is a protected figure behind an army of handlers and marketing people led by Terry Byrne and Simon Fuller. The only person in the story we never learn to understand from Wahl’s portrayal is Beckham. That’s because Beckham so closely guards his public image to journalists, fans, team mates, etc, it is impossible at times to read him.
Beckham’s social status evokes many reactions out of his team mates and fans. Wahl does a very good job of portraying the social tensions within the Galaxy family, and the image of society beyond the club. Some MLS players are among the lowest paid professional athletes in the United States. But Beckham seemed oblivious or worse uncaring about this fact through much of the narrative.
Wahl’s book on the whole is a masterpiece of sports journalism. Any fans of the game in the United States must read this book, and general sports fans would probably find it interesting as well. European football fans will be able to get an accurate gauge as to the state of club soccer in this country from reading Wahl’s book as well.
The Beckham Experiment is featured as one of the top 18 recommended soccer books to read this summer. The book is available from Amazon and all fine booksellers.