Soccer newsletter: The signing that changed MLS forever
Hello, and welcome to another edition of the L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, The Times’ soccer writer, and we begin today with the signing that changed MLS forever.
And David Beckham was just a part of that transaction.
All about the beautiful game
Go inside the L.A. pro soccer scene and beyond in Kevin Baxter's weekly newsletter.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.
Beckham, by the way, will be cheering against his old team for the first time Saturday when his expansion franchise, Inter Miami, welcomes his old one, the Galaxy, to Ft. Lauderdale for its inaugural home opener.
Beckham’s MLS playing career was so synonymous with Southern California, where he helped the Galaxy to two league titles in 5½ seasons, that last year the team placed a statue of him in front of its stadium. And earlier this month his first game as an owner took place in Southern California, with Inter Miami losing to LAFC in Exposition Park, a dozen miles up the Harbor Freeway from where Beckham once played.
“We still feel that’s our home,” Beckham said of Los Angeles. “We had six amazing years there. It was a great time for us.”
It was also a time that transformed MLS, taking the league from a poor, nearly bankrupt afterthought in international soccer to a destination for the likes of Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Beckham turned it from a league couldn’t give tickets away to one that boasts the seventh-highest average attendance in the world.
But his stay – and the changes it brought – almost ended before it really got started.
Enjoying this newsletter? Consider subscribing to the Los Angeles Times
Your support helps us deliver the news that matters most. Become a subscriber.
The former English national team captain, the first major European signing in MLS history, made his Galaxy debut in July 2007, midway through a dismal season in which the team would tie a franchise record for fewest wins. The next year was even worse. So when Bruce Arena was hired as coach and general manager midway through the 2008 season, his first task was to give Beckham a reason to stay.
“My suspicion is David was looking to leave,” Arena says now. “Winning was important to David and making the team better was important. I would say that he was not satisfied with a lot of things in the league. I know that he was really disappointed in 2008 with the status of the Galaxy and I know it had to get better.”
Beckham, who had a clause in his original five-year $32.5-million contract with the Galaxy that allowed him to buy an MLS expansion franchise at a deeply discounted price, one he exercised with Inter Miami, doesn’t remember it that way.
“There was never a point where I was going to leave the MLS,” he said. But he admitted he was deeply disappointed with what was happening around the Galaxy after arriving from Real Madrid.
“When you come from a club like Real Madrid, at the highest level of the game, and you come to league that has not been around for many years, there was obviously frustration,” he said. “But there was never any point in my mind that I had made a mistake moving to the U.S., moving to MLS.”
Still the hiring of Arena, a two-time MLS champion coach, marked a transformation in his relationship to the team and the league.
“Bruce was the one that changed everything for me,” Beckham said. “Bruce understood the league. He understood what it meant to bring a team together, to actually win the MLS Cup.”
First, however, he had to bring Beckham and Landon Donovan, the Galaxy’s two feuding stars together. Arena, who was hired primarily because he had the gravitas to stand up to Beckham, did that by convincing both sides to bend toward the middle.
“It was a mix of things,” Donovan remembers. “I had to change my attitude and have compassion for what he was going through, coming to this new league, to a terrible team. And then I think he realized that the way he acted mattered a lot. Not only to our team but to other teams and the league.
“Once I embraced that and he embraced that, that’s when the team took off.”
Well, not exactly. The Galaxy – with Beckham and Donovan playing key roles – made it the MLS Cup final in Arena’s first full season, losing in penalty kicks. But it was the addition of Robbie Keane late in the 2011 season that completed the puzzle Tim Leiweke, the CEO and president of AEG, imagined when he lured Beckham to the league.
“David was a midfielder. And so we knew he wasn’t going to be the guy that lit it up and scored 100 goals,” Leiweke said. “We always knew we were going to need to find another piece of two.”
And this is where Beckham may have made a big contribution he never got credit for. Because while the negotiations to bring him to the U.S. from Real Madrid took more than two years to complete, with Beckham already in place Keane needed just two days to decide he wanted to leave Tottenham to join him with the Galaxy.
“That showed how far we’d come,” Leiweke said.
With Beckham and Keane as teammates, the Galaxy won two titles in 16 months – and that, perhaps more than the signing of Beckham itself, is what really changed MLS.
By the team Keane played in his final game in MLS the league had welcomed World Cup champions Kaka and David Villa, Italian internationals Sebastian Giovinco and Andrea Pirlo and English national team captain Gerrard. Its games are now seen in 190 countries and territories around the world.
“Winning championships certainly was a difference-maker,” Arena said. “I guess you’d say the rest is history.”
Chicharito is so far missing in action
If Beckham’s signing was the most important in MLS history, many people are counting on this winter’s addition of Javier “Chicharito” Hernández to the Galaxy roster to be transformational in its own way.
In its first 24 seasons MLS has made few deep inroads into the Hispanic market, especially with Mexican-Americans, who continue to prefer televised Liga MX games from Mexico over anything MLS is offering. The league’s hope is Hernández, the Mexican national team’s all-leader score and the most popular player of his generation, can change that.
That project has not gotten off to a good start though with Hernández managing just two shots – neither on goal – in the Galaxy’s first two games -- neither of which the team won. Hernández disappeared for long segments in both a season-opening draw in Houston and last Saturday’s home loss to Vancouver, getting fewer touches and making fewer passes than any starter.
“Everyone is waiting on the Chicharito goal and everyone will ask me about Chicharito if he doesn’t score,” Galaxy coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto said. “I am more worried about the result tonight than whether Chicharito scores or not. He is a regular striker and we’ve had just two games and he hasn’t scored.
“We expect he will score in the next game. We put the ball in the box all the time, but we couldn’t find him. We will try in the next game.”
As for what Hernández is thinking no one knows since he didn’t show up for his postgame news conference Saturday. The Galaxy had hyped Hernández’s home debut – which drew the largest crowd for a home opener since 2015 -- all week and nearly four dozen reporters and 18 TV cameras showed up to cover it.
But Hernández, with the team’s approval, left his coach and teammates to answer for him afterward.
“Chicharito is Chicharito and he will always have that pressure,” said midfielder Jonathan dos Santos, who came out of Saturday’s loss to Vancouver at halftime with a quadriceps issue. “He has to be calm. He’s working hard, I see he is eager. A forward lives off of scoring goals and it hasn’t happened yet.
“There’s a long season ahead and hopefully he can score the next game and I think that will take some pressure off of him because I think that’s important for him. We know he will be an important player for us.”
The Galaxy have no choice but to wait for that to happen. After paying a club-record $10-million transfer fee to acquire the rights to Hernández from Spanish club Sevilla, then signing him to a three-year contract that guarantees him $6 million annually, the Galaxy have already invested $28 million in the 31-year-old. With bonuses and a contract option for a fourth season, the total value of the deal could easily top $35 million.
With that much on the line, Schelotto could soon find himself on the hot seat if he can’t make Hernández productive.
Schelotto took the Galaxy to the playoffs last season, winning 16 games; only three teams won more. And he started this season with a much-improved roster, having replaced left back Jorgen Skjelvik with Emiliano Insúa while keeping winger Cristian Pavón, who had eight assists and three goals in the final 11 regular-season games last year.
But so far this season Schelotto and his predictable team have shown no creativity, earning just a point despite opening the season against two of the three worst teams in the Western Conference in 2019. And Saturday’s road game in Ft. Lauderdale could be the toughest of the three given the cross-country flight and the fact it is Inter Miami’s first-ever home game.
Nevertheless Schelotto’s team is going to need a better showing than it’s given so far if the coach hopes to convince his bosses he can turn the Galaxy -- and Hernández -- around.
Not exactly talking the talk
Hernández’s decision to go AWOL from his own news conference Saturday was unfortunate, given that he had much to answer for after two disappointing performances. But until that moment he had been generous in his dealings with the media, answering questions in English and Spanish at length and making the rounds of the late-night talk shows.
LAFC captain Carlos Vela, on the other hand, has done all his talking on the field, scoring goals in each of his team’s first two games – a win over Inter Miami and a draw with Philadelphia – then ignoring requests from team officials to meet with the media afterward.
Vela has spoken to reporters just twice since LAFC opened training camp eight weeks ago despite being contractually obligated, as is every MLS player, to be available to the media after every game and training session. And he’s the reigning MVP. How tough are the questions going to be for the best player in the league?
Before we go any further let me make it clear that I am not in favor of a policy that requires anyone – athletes, actors or apple farmers – to speak with reporters. This isn’t a case of a journalist whining about access.
With the exception of Germany, soccer players don’t speak regularly with the media in Europe and those leagues seem to get all the coverage they need. But it’s precisely because the leagues and teams already get coverage that beat reporters are kept at arm’s length.
In the U.S., it’s in the interests of both the players and the leagues to do just the opposite. MLS is no better than the fifth-most-popular professional sports league in the U.S., where WNBA games sometimes outdraw soccer on TV. Players in other sports, such as LeBron James, Mike Trout, J.J. Watt and Sidney Crosby, face far greater demands on their time than Vela, yet still do their part to sell the games that have made them millions.
Or forget other sports. The most popular soccer team in the country is the women’s national team and that’s not just because it’s the two-time reigning World Cup champion. Players from Alex Morgan, Carli Lloyd and Megan Rapinoe to Rose Lavelle, Julie Ertz and Christen Press have sincerely taken on the burden of promoting their game. Add in an ambitious press officer in Aaron Heifetz and it’s less a soccer team than a group of rock stars.
MLS wants and needs the same kind of coverage – especially since its broadcast deal pays it less half what the NHL gets. And the best way to get that is to make stars like Vela, who has a great story to tell, available to tell it.
With goals in his team’s first two games this season, Vela extended his MLS record to 12 consecutive home games with a goal dating to last May. Last season he broke the single-season scoring mark with 34 goals and led LAFC to the best regular-season record ever.
His also the third-fastest player to 50 goals and the all-time leading goal scorer from Mexico. Plus MLS paid him $6.3 million last season, LAFC made him its captain -- which carries with it the expectation that he speaks for the team -- and, like Hernández, he’s bilingual and playing in the country’s largest Hispanic market.
Soccer won’t sell itself in the U.S. and until the players and teams decide that job is up to them, the sport will lag well behind basketball and football in the public consciousness.
A bit of MLS trivia from Soccer America in honor of Major League Soccer’s silver anniversary season:
The league began play in 1996 with 10 teams, six of whom – the Galaxy, D.C. United, San Jose, Kansas City, Columbus and Colorado – have won titles. The four who haven’t? Dallas, New York, New England and Tampa Bay.
Dallas and New York have both undergone name changes since their births, Dallas going from the Burn to FC Dallas and New York from Metro Stars to the Red Bulls. The Tampa Bay Mutiny, meanwhile, folded after the 2001 season.
Technically the team with the longest title drought in MLS belongs to New England, which kicked off for the first time on April 13, 1996 in Tampa Bay, 4 1/2 hours before the MetroStars took the field against the Galaxy at the Rose Bowl. Dallas didn’t play its first game until the next day.
Boulevard of dreams?
According to the San Jose Mercury News, San Jose Earthquakes vice president Chris Gennuso has filed a permit with the city of San Jose to change a side street near Avaya Stadium from Champion Drive to Wondo Way, after Quakes’ star Chris Wondolowski, MLS’ all-time regular-season scoring leader.
Given the Quakes’ performance during the Wondolowski era – two playoff wins in 12 years – Champion Way really didn’t fit anyway.
“Honestly I don’t feel the pressure. I’ve been a coach for 32 years. And I’ve always been a female for those years.”
Carrie Taylor, an assistant for Landon Donovan’s San Diego Loyal, on being the highest-ranking coach in the second-tier USL Championship
Get our high school sports newsletter
Prep Rally is devoted to the SoCal high school sports experience, bringing you scores, stories and a behind-the-scenes look at what makes prep sports so popular.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.