Sounders FC

'Beckham Experiment': Pass or fail?

For two seasons, Major League Soccer’s “Beckham Experiment” was a masterpiece off the pitch and a mess on it.

It might just be Seattle Sounders FC’s misfortune to be pulling into Los Angeles just as that is changing.

The Galaxy has gone 2-0-1 since David Beckham’s return from AC Milan last month and has rushed past the slumping Sounders as the teams prepare for their meeting Saturday at Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif.

“I don’t think the experiment is over yet,” Sports Illustrated senior writer and author Grant Wahl said in a phone interview this week. “Clearly right now Los Angeles is playing some very good soccer. And if L.A. were to win a championship this year or next with Beckham, I think that would certainly help matters, since the first two seasons of Beckham in America were, in soccer teams, a disaster.”

Wahl is the author of “The Beckham Experiment,” a detailed look at the best-known athlete in the world and his first two seasons in MLS.

The pages that have generated the most controversy cover the criticism from teammate Landon Donovan, who came to find Beckham an unworthy captain and eventually a bad teammate.

But what Beckham has been unquestionably good at is drawing attention to MLS – much as Pelé did in directing the world’s attention to the North America Soccer League.

The primary difference is that Pelé also produced on the pitch, while the Galaxy actually won more games over the past couple of seasons with Beckham out of the lineup – and for better or worse, there has been no shortage of those.

“Pelé has done some things that Beckham has not done yet, which is win championships in American soccer and to really change nonsoccer people into soccer followers,” Wahl said. “I think Beckham has been a very successful celebrity in America, and people now know who he is just by opening People magazine or watching ‘Entertainment Tonight.’

“But I don’t think that a lot of those people also know or care how Beckham is doing with the Los Angeles Galaxy soccer team.”

For the first 10 seasons of MLS – 1996-2005 – the Galaxy was a flagship franchise, winning the West five times, making the playoff quarterfinals seven times, the final five times, winning the MLS Cup twice, including one under current Sounders coach Sigi Schmid.

However, Los Angeles has failed to make the playoffs in either of Beckham’s first two seasons. Last season, the Galaxy tied the expansion San Jose Earthquakes for the league’s worst record.

Despite that, the club has sold sponsorships, jerseys and tickets.

Even this season, when Beckham’s domestic popularity has slipped, he remains by far the league’s biggest draw.

The New York Red Bulls average 12,702 fans per game, but 23,409 turned out for Beckham’s season debut on July 16. Kansas City averages 10,024, but drew a more-than-capacity crowd of 11,906 for Beckham. New England averages 14,592, but 26,623 turned out Saturday to watch for bending shots.

“I really think that Beckham has shown better than anyone that celebrity and sports, when they come together, have a multiplier effect,” Wahl said.

“Beckham has certainly worked that to his advantage since he met his wife (Victoria Beckham, aka Posh Spice) when the Spice Girls were popular and joined that world whether it was fashion, celebrity or just the celebrity media. So, yeah, it’s made him a very unique person in sports. And that’s why I feel very comfortable calling him the most famous athlete in the world. I honestly don’t think Tiger Woods is there.”

Seattle missed the party this season because Beckham was on his extended stay with Milan when the Galaxy and Sounders played to a 1-1 draw on May 10 in front of 29,025 fans at Qwest Field.

However, Beckham is expected to be back from duty with England’s national team in time for the Sounders’ weekend visit, which will air locally at 8 p.m. Saturday on KONG-TV 6/16.

That game will mark Beckham’s first regular-season game in Los Angeles this season, and his first at Home Depot Center since challenging a taunting fan to come down on the pitch in a home friendly last month.

Beckham was fined for the incident, which has only increased the buzz about his return. Love him or hate him, fans and media still do not seem able to ignore him.

“I do know that MLS hasn’t minded the publicity from the book since it came out,” Wahl said. “In their minds there is some truth to ‘any publicity is good publicity.’ And this is a good, old-fashioned controversy between Beckham and Landon Donovan. ... We haven’t had too many good, old-fashioned sports controversies in American soccer that seem to be fairly common in other American sports.”

Don Ruiz, 253-597-8808