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GRAHAME L. JONES / ON SOCCER

David Beckham will leave, and that could teach MLS a lesson

Beckham will find a way to remain with AC Milan instead of coming back to the Galaxy. What the U.S. league needs to learn is how to play hardball with its international competitors.

February 06, 2009|GRAHAME L. JONES | ON SOCCER

It's all about saving face, now, for Major League Soccer.

David Beckham is history. He has said he wants no more of MLS, no more of the Galaxy, no more of Los Angeles. The Beckham circus has moved on and Milan is its latest stop.

Lawyers are negotiating just how the 33-year-old can wriggle out of the five-year contract he signed with MLS in 2007. They will succeed. A deal will be cut. That's the way of the business world.

Then the spin doctors will step in. Here, in all likelihood, is the sort of thing they will say: "We have decided that it is in the best interests of David Beckham to let him join AC Milan and thereby continue pursuing his dream of playing for England in the World Cup in South Africa next year.

"We'd like to thank David for his time here and the excitement and attention he brought to our league. We wish him well."

Forgotten in all this will be the words Beckham himself spoke when he arrived to play for the Galaxy in July 2007.

"Ever since I signed for the Galaxy, people have questioned why I have come to America," he said, "but every move I've made in my career has been about football for me.

"It's also about being an ambassador for the game here and, hopefully, it is going to encourage other players to come to the States and be part of this because soccer in America can become much bigger.

"That's why I'm here. I want to be part of the growth of the game in the States."

So what did he accomplish in 18 months? Thirty games played for the Galaxy. Five goals scored. A lot of squealing female fans. A lot of Galaxy jerseys sold. A few more fans in seats. A bit of media buzz.

Not much more than that. The soccer needle remains about where it was before he stepped off the plane at LAX.

Or does it?

By leaving, Beckham might do more for the sport in the U.S. than he did by arriving.

His departure will focus attention on the shortcomings of MLS and of the Galaxy in particular. If the league wants to be taken seriously on a global level, it has to learn how to play the game off the field as well as on it.

It is no good putting up the shutters, as the Galaxy did this week, and saying "no comment" when stories began pouring out of Europe on an almost daily basis about Beckham's desire to stay in Milan and Milan's desire to keep Beckham.

The Galaxy, and owner AEG, had two options. They could simply and flatly have stated that Beckham was under contract, that the contract would have to be honored and that no offers would be considered.

Or they could have played the game the way the big clubs do -- the way Real Madrid and Manchester United circled each other over the future of star player Cristiano Ronaldo last year, or the way AC Milan and Manchester City indulged in all sorts of give-and-take over the future of Kaka this year.

Instead of going into hiding, the Galaxy and AEG could have and should have turned the tables.

They could have started by saying that as long as AC Milan was courting their player, they would expect something in return -- say a Ronaldinho or an Andrei Shevchenko, both of whom languish on the AC Milan bench. That would have tossed a cat among the San Siro pigeons.

Perhaps such a move is going on behind the scenes, but it is doubtful. Just as the Galaxy failed to surround Beckham and another star, Landon Donovan, with players of similar quality, so MLS, AEG and the Galaxy have no one who can match wits with the likes of AC Milan's owner, Silvio Berlusconi, or its chief executive, Adriano Galliani.

Tim Leiweke and Co. are, to put it bluntly, out of their league, especially with Ivan Gazidis, the former MLS deputy commissioner, having abandoned ship in November to become Arsenal's chief executive.

Beckham was allowed to do as he liked in Los Angeles. No one was willing to cross him or risk ruffling the feathers of the league's golden boy. That, as much as the mediocre quality of MLS talent, told Beckham that the league had a long way to go.

It took Ruud Gullit a lot less time to figure this out. The former Dutch and AC Milan star was brought in as a Galaxy coach who had achieved as much or more than Beckham and could treat him as an equal.

But Gullit lasted barely nine months before he packed his bags and returned to Europe last August, mumbling nonsense about how there was a conspiracy to keep soccer from making it big in America.

Beckham learned from that. He won't be critical, but he has been no less disenchanted.

While talking last week about the "great tradition" and "special atmosphere" at AC Milan, Beckham lamented the lack of those same qualities in MLS.

"To be honest, the Americans are trying to improve the level of the game and its reputation," he said. "The American game is very young. I think it needs another 10 years to reach an important level."

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grahame.jones@latimes.com

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