Travel, heat, officiating likely to affect Beckham
Grahame L. Jones, Los Angeles Times
Monday, July 16, 2007
On Saturday, David Beckham will step onto an American field for the first time as a Major League Soccer player.
The professional soccer life that the former England national team captain has enjoyed the last 15 years is about to change dramatically. Think of Kobe Bryant going to play in Spain. Think of Barry Bonds in a Yomiuri Giants uniform.
Think of, well, Beckham, in a Los Angeles Galaxy jersey, at Pizza Hut Park in Frisco, Texas, on a 100-degree afternoon, with a so-so referee making another questionable call, with Beckham's ankle throbbing and the prospect of yet another crowded commercial flight ahead of him.
No doubt all of this has occurred to the 32-year-old midfielder. No doubt his multimillion-dollar contract has enabled him to see beyond the next five years. He voiced just the right words Friday when he was introduced amid much fanfare at the Home Depot Center in Carson (Los Angeles County).
But Beckham's first half-season in MLS could be a rough ride.
The playing fields of the United States and Canada are not like the manicured lawns of Manchester's Old Trafford or Madrid's Santiago Bernabeu stadiums. Sometimes they are threadbare, bumpy or even artificial. The perfect footing from which to launch those precise crosses and deadly free kicks will not always be there.
The players are not like the pampered and pedigreed practitioners at Manchester United or Real Madrid. Some of them are clumsy. Some of them are slow -- of foot and thought. Some of them are earning in a year what Beckham earns in the time it takes him to drive from Beverly Hills to Carson and back.
In other words, Beckham cannot expect the players around him to read the game as quickly and seemingly as effortlessly as he does. In MLS, the play is more disjointed than smooth-flowing.
There will be the heat to endure, as in scorching game-time temperatures. There will be the travel, the constant crisscrossing of a continent into which England and Spain combined easily could fit in one small corner. There will be the all-too-often suspect officiating and the all-too-often banal media questions.
It will be a grand adventure for Beckham, and if he can hold onto his national team place, help England qualify for Euro 2008 and take part in that tournament in Austria and Switzerland next summer while at the same time helping raise soccer's profile in the United States, then he will have accomplished something few believed possible.
The obstacles in his path are genuine, and the first of these is the matter of playing a winter game in summer and doing so in a vast, vast land.
Beckham, like top athletes in any sport these days, is accustomed to traveling in style. For him, charter flights have been the norm. The league has deemed that charter flights provide an unfair competitive advantage unless every team can afford to take them.
However, there is a new policy that teams, on a case-by-case basis, can petition MLS to be allowed to use charters "for security reasons," and the Galaxy has done so for their first extended trip to Toronto, Washington and New England in early August.
It seems unlikely that the team will submit a petition for every trip, so Beckham should expect to travel on commercial airliners -- and travel a great deal. With the road games the Galaxy has packed into the second half of its season, he could rack up at least 15,000 to 20,000 air miles in the next four months, playoffs included.
And then there's that long-haul flight to Australia for the Nov 27 friendly against Sydney FC, not to mention however many times he will have to fly back to England to rejoin the national team for Euro 2008 qualifying matches. That alone could add four or five 12,000-mile round trips.
"The traveling is huge," New England Revolution goalkeeper Matt Reis said. "The 6-hour, 10-minute flight from Boston to Los Angeles is nothing to bat an eye about. That's the big thing that a lot of the (European) players don't realize. The traveling is even more draining than the weather."
The Galaxy will do what it can to ease the narrow-seat, fasten-seat-belts, tray-tables-upright experience by sheltering the team in airport executive lounges, and will allow Beckham, his security detail and a rotation of other players and coaches to fly first class.
There is less that the Galaxy can do about the standard of officiating in MLS. It has improved over the league's 11-plus seasons, but is still not high. Bad calls or non-calls seem to occur all too frequently. The smarter the players, the more they take advantage.
The difference now is this: Because of the huge investment the league has made in the England midfielder, will he play in a virtual bubble, with any hard tackle on him bringing an immediate whistle?
In other words, is he off-limits?
"I'm sure there will definitely be a protection level for him," Galaxy midfielder Cobi Jones said. "The referees will protect him to a degree, but what a lot of people forget is that Beckham gives just as good as he takes. He likes to bang bodies. I think he'll smack a few people around. That's good. You like a midfielder who does that."
Then there is the matter of Beckham being targeted by defenders because of the danger he poses. "I think in my career I've always been some sort of target for players that I've played against and teams that I've played against," Beckham said Friday. "If I'm a target, then hopefully my teammates will like me enough to stick up for me, which I'm sure they will. But we'll see."
Beckham's proneness to retaliatory fouls could cause MLS a problem, though. If Beckham, later in the season, commits a foul that could cause him to be suspended for the next game, and the next game is against a club that has sold out its stadium based on Beckham playing, will the referee make the call? More important, will MLS enforce the suspension?
There are some concerns about referees being star-struck at finding themselves on the same field as Beckham. Reis says he already has seen the way some MLS referees have reacted to the Columbus Crew's big-name Argentine striker, Guillermo Barros Schelotto.
"The guys are talking to him, and it's almost like they want to get an autograph and a picture after the game," Reis said.