All-Star week epitomizes duality of MLS’s Beckham arrangement

5 Comments

CHESTER, Pa. – It was another chance to grab the headlines. Of course, David Beckham stepped up. His long diagonal for Dwayne De Rosario set up Chris Pontius’s second half equalizer, his teammates finally making good on a ball he’d been providing all night. MLS’s all-stars went on to defeat Chelsea, ending a three-match losing streak, with Beckham playing an integral part.

(MORE: Cleaning out the notebook on MLS All-Star matters)

Just as he seemed to do when Fabio Capello called him into the national team, just like he did when he went on loan with AC Milan, and just like he did in last November’s MLS Cup final, David Beckham rose to the level of his competition. His 55 completed passes were 16 more than any of his teammates. Part of that was due to playing time. Most of it was do to his Pirlo-esque role in Ben Olsen’s team. Starting on the right side of midfield, Beckham would drop into a sitter’s role in MLS’s attacking phase, regularly hitting passes into the spaces around Branislav Ivavonic (Chelsea’s right back) and Gary Cahill (right-center half). With Chelsea rekindling their end-of-season ways, laying back and ceding the battle for the ball, Beckham was able to test Chelsea’s defense whenever he wanted. Marko Marin, Yossi Benayoun and Florent Malouda seemed content to let the legend shine.

That’s why it’s hard to give Beckham too much credit. In MLS, most teams have learned they can’t give him that kind of time on the ball. That’s what made his recent double in Portland was so remarkable. How could the Timbers forget about Beckham? With two long distance first half goals, Beckham reminded them, and while he didn’t quite replicate that performance against Chelsea, the Blues still left PPL Park reminded how good Beckham can still be.

In the days leading up to Wednesday’s game, much of MLS had forgotten about Beckham, if only temporarily. With the Summer Olympics starting in England, Beckham (who served as a spokesperson throughout the nation’s bidding process) had been back in London. Amid speculation about what role Beckham will play in Friday’s opening ceremonies came questions about whether he’d play any role in Chester. When Beckham didn’t make an appearance during Tuesday’s festivities, the speculation became more explicit: Would Beckham just stay in England for Wednesday’s game? Come Tuesday evening, MLS was assuring partners the league’s marquee player would play.

With Beckham rising to the occasion late in Wednesday’s match (remarkably so, given his lack of training), the All-Star Game became a metaphor for league’s entire Beckham experience. For all the worries about his commitment to his North American mission, Beckham was there when it counted, even if it meant dropping in at the last minute (and getting out as soon as possible). Around the world, he was the game’s marquee name, still outshining those from his European title-winning opponents. If the point of signing and re-signing Beckham was an international credibility play, the acquisition’s been an amazing success. Every time Chelsea players were asked about soccer in the States, the first thing they mentioned was David Beckham.

But Beckham’s has always been a complicated picture. In this part of the world there’s the expectation that the person getting the glory should also be willing to do the dirty work. Beckham’s had good reasons for his Galaxy sojourns – unexpected opportunities in Italy, a second life with England, a once-in-a-lifetime role helping to confirm his country’s Olympic dream – but they’ll never sit well over here. Our sports culture has never had to reconcile such conflicts, and it was unlikely to grant its first exception to somebody from England coming over to play soccer.

On Wednesday he was one of a number of MLS stars. He’s far more limited than the player that initially came to the United States, but he’s still capable of stealing the spotlight when the curtain goes up. Beckham always turns up for a show.

The problems come off stage: the absenteeism, preferential treatment, and general uncertainty. Where will David be today? On Monday and Tuesday, as the event was building to Wednesday’s climax, Beckham was nowhere to be found. He had a good reason, and he came and performed when it mattered, but his teammates were there all week. He wasn’t. His teammates had to face the media, go to the events – to be in Philadelphia. Beckham had another reason to temporarily withdraw.

In my ideal world, this would be a non-issue, but attitudes aren’t going to change overnight. Beckham is the first player that’s challenged our notion of where team commitment fits into the bigger picture. After his first loan spell at Milan, attitudes started to change regarding players spending their offseasons playing for other teams.

You don’t have these debates in football, baseball, or basketball. This is an issue the world’s bringing to us.