Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Review: The Beckham Experiment

The Beckham Experiment: How the World's Most Famous Athlete Tried to Conquer America by Grant Wahl

If you've been following MLS in the last month you've heard about the uproar that this book has caused. Donovan calling the world's most famous player a poor teammate and a cheapskate, Beckham calling the book "unoffical" or "unauthorized", and MLS trying to stay out of the way. The publishers were nice enough to send me a copy of the book for review and I dug right in. Simply, this is the best book I've read about Major League Soccer (admittedly a short list). Anyone who's followed American soccer for a few years knows Grant Wahl, who may be the best soccer journalist in the country. When news of Beckham coming to LA was announced Wahl got a leave of absence from his job at Sports Illustrated to follow the team for a year (which was extended to 16 months after Beckham's injury in 2007) and write a book about the interaction of the circus that is Team Beckham with the young MLS. The LA Galaxy and the rest of the league were happy to grant him the access he needed, and what resulted was a very interesting look at life in MLS.

When I say the "rest of the league" granted him access there was one notable person that did not go along with it. David Beckham himself. Beckham's people told Wahl that he would need to pay a minimum of a million dollars and give Beckham's people editorial control in order to get the same access he was getting from the rest of the league. Not surprisingly, he passed. This has been the basis of the "unofficial" claims from Camp Old Spice and others, but there is plenty of commentary from Beckham in the book. David was made available in press conferences before and after every match and numerous times after training during the week so Wahl had plenty of chances to ask him questions. He was not able to sit down one-on-one with Beckham and ask him about some of the things other people said, but he gave Beckham that chance and they turned it down, Wahl shouldn't be faulted for that.

There's been some talk that Wahl wrote this book to take Player A down a peg or to get on Player B's good side. While the excerpts may lead you to believe that, once you've read the book you realize that nobody comes out of it looking good (except maybe Alan Gordon). There's enough blame and questionable decisions to go around, from Beckham himself, to his teammates like Landon Donovan, to the coaches (Frank Yallop and Ruud Gullit), to the front office (GM Alexi Lalas) and all the way to the head of AEG soccer operations, Tim Leiweke. Wahl does a good job of laying out what happened from multiple points of view and while he draws some conclusions from it all of them are reasonable based on the evidence presented.

The only drawback to the book is that it can be a bit repetitive. Wahl mentions the same information 2-3 times, or tells variations of the same stories in multiple places. Its a light read so having to go through the same information multiple times isn't a big deal, but by the third time you're being told that Alan Gordon shared a locker room with Beckham while only making 30K a year, it gets a bit annoying.

If you are interested in MLS outside the play on the field I'd recommend reading this book. For Rapids fans there's a nice chapter on the aftermath of Ruud Gullit's first game in charge of the Galaxy, which was that 4-0 beat-down the Rapids game them at the Dick to start the 2008 season, and a "what could of been" moment when we find out Lalas vetoed trading Pete Vagenas and a draft pick for Kyle Beckerman (Ballouchy was a better trade than that at least). I'll be keeping this on my shelf next to John Harkes' Captain for Life, which is one of the better looks at the u.S. National Team in the 1990's.

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