Hopefully the coincidence wasn’t lost on David Beckham, in attendance with Robbie Keane Tuesday night at Staples Center. The LA Galaxy duo was on hand for the Lakers’ season opener against the Dallas Mavericks – what was supposed to be the beginning of LA’s romp through the NBA’s Western Conference. After the acquisitions of Steve Nash and Dwight Howard, the hype’s been incredible.
So have the expectations. When the Lakers lost to Dallas on Tuesday, one media outlet noted the team wouldn’t go 82-0. There was a tinge of irony in the caption, an irony that played to the jaws that have remained dropped after Los Angeles acquired Howard.
Eight months ago, the Galaxy were in a similar situation. Major League Soccer media openly debated whether the Galaxy would be the best team of all-time. After capping a championship season in November, the Galaxy added Edson Buddle, Marcelo Sarvas, and extended Juninho’s loan from Sao Paulo. How many trophies? was the question before LA crashed out of the Champions League. If wasn’t a word until Torsten Frings and Toronto FC brought LA back down to earth. The defending champs would win only three of their first 13 games.
With their loss to the Mavs, the Lakers did their part to preserve the parallel, reinforcing the coincidence by stumbling badly in Portland Wednesday night. But as their 0-2 start sees the front page pundits baiting their egos, the Lakers can look west to Staples Center and draw inspiration from the LA Galaxy, who recovered to make the MLS playoffs. Winning nine out of 12 during a mid-season surge, were as good as anybody before locking up their playoff spot. You don’t have to look long to find somebody picking the defending champions to upset Supporters’ Shield-winning San Jose in the semifinals (should they beat Vancouver on Thursday).
If the Lakers manage a similar turnaround, it will only add to a list of parallels between the two teams. Like their NBA counterparts, the Galaxy have become the marquee team in their league. It’s a stature that’s fueled by their success, media affinity, and their ability to spend more than their competition, ensuring the roster always features recognizable names. On the basketball side, there’s Nash, Howard and Pau Gasol, while Home Depot Center has Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane.
And of course, then there’s Kobe and Becks, the franchises’ figureheads. While nobody approaches Kobe Bryant’s stature in Los Angeles, the one Galaxy player oblivious Angelinos are likely to know is soccer’s global icon. Even if most of Los Angeles doesn’t know what makes him so great, they know that the great David Beckham plays in their city.
But to continue to call Beckham great could be an exaggeration. While he put in his best Major League Soccer season in 2011 (earning many media members’ votes for MVP of the MLS Cup final), this year age has make up time on the 37-year-old. For years people asked how Beckham could maintain himself at such an advanced age. You don’t hear those questions anymore. In the first year of his new, two-year contract, David Beckham finally looks like he’s inching toward retirement.
Now, after making his name on the right, Beckham’s fully converted to a central midfielder’s role, where he continues to be a fulcrum in LA’s attack. But if his range of passing has not suffered, his range of movement has. The fitness that helped define his ability to patrol the right now only appears in spurts. The circle of influence you can draw around Beckham’s central position is much smaller this year than last, part of the reason he was omitted from Team Great Britian’s Olympic team this summer. Dependent on the work of Juninho and Sarvas, Beckham’s effectiveness is limited to the middle-third, where his ability to read the game often provides Los Angeles’s main creative spark.
On rare occassions, Beckham can transcend those limitations. This year’s best example came in mid-July, when Beckham turned back the clock in Portland. He struck early from just inside the final-third, scoring from distance as opponents paused, as if watching a highlight from a YouTube clip. Five minutes later, it was too easy to give the league its second goal-of-the-week nominee, finding the tiny fault in the Timbers’ wall that gave him an early double.
But like Bryant, the moments of true dominance are becoming rare. Although the 34-year-old Laker is still among the best in his sport, Beckham’s mid-30s regression may foreshadow what’s to come for LA’s other sports icon. As the world saw at this summer’s Olympics, Bryant now has to pace himself. He can’t be brilliant every minute, every night. Like Michael Jordan before him, the last part of his career has forced him to swap drives for fallaways. As much as Bryant’s lucky to have Nash, Howard, and Gasol, he needs that caliber of player if the Lakers are going to maintain their title hopes.
Three years older than Bryant, Beckham’s dependence on his teammates isn’t so surprising. He’s always depended on others. It’s the nature of his position. As much as he’s made his name for his ability over a dead ball, more often than not, he’s needed people on the other end of those crosses. For LA, he needs Donovan’s speed to run into passes. He needs Keane’s movement to open up space. He needs Sarvas and Juninho to provide outlets when the Hollywood ball isn’t there.
With both Bryant and Beckham, we have to wait to see if they can still raise their game on the biggest stage. With Kobe, we’ll have to wait until spring, though if the Olympics are any indication, he’ll be there when it counts.
With Beckham, the time is now. The playoffs start tonight with a must-win against Vancouver, and although LA can beat the Whitecaps without Beckham at his best, it would be a mistake to assume he can’t get there anymore. It was just one year ago that he was one of the best players in the field as his team won a title.