It was on Jan. 11, 2007, that David Beckham officially signed with the LA Galaxy. But amid subsequent news conferences and photo shoots and handshakes, it still didn't seem quite real. That changed almost six months later on July 21.
On that day, Beckham suited up for the Galaxy for the first time. True, on the surface the match was a meaningless midseason friendly against a Chelsea side trying to get ready for the Premier League season. But it was the first time that observers could say to themselves, "Yes, that really is David Beckham in an LA Galaxy uniform gracing the field at the team's home venue."
But it wouldn't be a Beckham production without some drama, plenty of spectacle and some doses of humor thrown in. And no matter what perspective a person might have had -- be it player, coach, team executive, league executive or even a TV producer -- one thing was certain: MLS would never be the same.
Beckham was introduced at a news conference on July 12. Later he got around to meeting his new teammates, including an exchange in which forward Alan Gordon introduced himself and asked the megastar, "And you are?" It helped break the ice, for Beckham more than anyone.
Alan Gordon (LA Galaxy forward, 2004-10, 2014-16): It was kind of an impulse thing. I hadn't thought about it prior. I was about eight guys in, we were all just standing at our lockers. David walks in the room and we're all standing there, in awe that this is all happening. And he starts shaking everybody's hand. I just held on to his hand and made light of the situation as I often do. It broke the ice, the room chuckled and everybody got a good kick. It took a really awkward situation for him and made it less awkward. I think it helped us and it helped him as well. The tension was relieved and we moved on.
Kyle Martino (LA Galaxy midfielder, 2006-07): In a weird way, out of all the nerves and expectations, David seemed the most nervous. Any butterflies we had were quickly assuaged by seeing how nervous he was. Then your human quality kicks in where you want to be the one to try and make him comfortable. When Alan did that, he did what we all wanted to do, which was say, 'Listen, what's the big deal? This is great. Welcome to the team.' You could tell that David was so grateful for Alan doing that because he hates that stuff. He hates the pageantry of it all and just wanted someone to take the first crack at him, and the jokes and the banter started from that day forth.
Landon Donovan (LA Galaxy midfielder, 2005-14, 2016): If there was any person you would want in your locker room, it's Gordo because, one, he's not starstruck by anyone. He's salt of the earth and as grounded as they come. He was excited to meet him and play with him, but he didn't really care that it was this famous person coming in. You need that; you need to let everyone laugh a little bit because I'm sure from David's perspective too, it's not all that comfortable to come into a situation like that. Having Gordo was really helpful for everyone.
Martino: To illustrate the joker Beckham wanted to be, he duct-taped my locker shut when I was out at training. Someone was like, 'Yeah, David did it.' So the next day when he went out, he always set up his gear perfectly in his locker, and he would put his flip-flops right in front of his chair. So the last thing he did was slide his feet in and walk away. That day I Krazy-Glued his flip-flops to the ground and he came in. Think about, this is a multimillion dollar asset to the LA Galaxy, and here's a kid barely making six figures. I had to leave because I couldn't keep a straight face, but when he got into them he went to go walk and fell flat on his face.
The media deluge
The Galaxy was the flagship team of MLS at that time, but nothing could have prepared the organization for the media onslaught that Beckham's arrival unleashed.
Martino: Typically at a Galaxy training session, there's maybe four or five people from the press. On that day, there were hundreds of people around the practice field and helicopters flying over. David was on the bench and we had never dealt with this before, and no one had thought to rope off the bench. So everyone taking photos could basically sit on his lap. There was this bizarre moment with all the photographers realizing that they could just go and take photos of David sitting on the bench, like a foot away from him. That's when it crystallized, where it was, 'Whoops, I imagine we were supposed to rope off the bench to stop this from happening.' They quickly went and got a rope and created a barricade.
Donovan: It took a long time to get used to it, and that's coming from someone who was somewhat used to big media scrums and things like that from World Cups. Even for me that was overwhelming to have that many people that interested in him. It made you realize that his popularity went way, way beyond soccer. That's what was eye-opening for us. Any little thing he did or the team did, or that was said or done, was making the news. 'Overwhelming' is a good word, but it was exciting too.
Chris Klein (LA Galaxy midfielder, 2007-10): The league and club as a whole, I don't know that anyone could prepare for the attention from, not only one of the most famous soccer players in the world, but one of the most famous people in the world playing with us. So it was the things that surrounded it -- the travel, the media attention that was brought to him. I don't know if 'disruptive' is the right word, but maybe just not prepared for the amount and intensity of the attention.
This was a Chelsea side in its heyday, a side with John Terry, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba. It was also a team plenty used to the Premier League fishbowl. On this day they were mere foils. Not that they minded.
Ashley Cole (Chelsea defender, 2006-14): I don't think we actually [anticipated] Beckham's impact would be that great. Normally, if you sign for a club, you just take the picture with the shirt, do one interview and it's done. But then we see the Beckham entrance with the fireworks, all the fans waiting outside. We knew it was a big deal, and then when we see the cameras following, that's not something we're used to in Europe really.
Joe Cole (Chelsea midfielder, 2003-10): We was aware of it, but in 2007 we were coming off Premier League seasons and World Cups. You're very much in your cocoon as a player and you're focused on your job and your goals for the next season. The game did have an air of importance because Becks was there and it was his first game for the Galaxy. In terms of our team, your focus is on your own job and your own thing. In our minds, it wasn't anything particularly huge or spectacular. Looking back on it now, it has a lot of relevance because it was a massive undertaking for the league and the club.
It was no secret that Beckham was dealing with a serious ankle injury. There's even a memorable photo of Beckham celebrating Real Madrid's La Liga title that year with crutches in his hand. When he finally landed in L.A., Beckham's situation hadn't improved.
Martino: Beckham's ankle was in bad, bad shape. It was twice the size of his other ankle. In the days leading up to the game, he ramped up his training, and we looked at each other and said, 'He's not really going to play, is he?' And I got my first glimpse of the competitive spirit of David, and also the adolescent version juxtaposed against this enormous media machine. And the financial conglomerate that had been built on the back of his name battling against the kid in him that wanted to get out there and play in a big soccer game against this team that had some of his England teammates but also old pros he had faced many times.
Beckham's injury put the MLS and the Galaxy in a bind. Would he play? Even more pressing, should he? There were plenty of constituencies who thought they had a say.
Frank Yallop (LA Galaxy manager, 2006-07): It was touch and go. I was speaking to [AEG president] Tim Leiweke and himself. Normally, he wouldn't have played, but because it was David's first game, Chelsea are here, the decision was made. Once we sat down with Tim, David and myself, he said 'I think I can give you 10 minutes.' It was David's game. He said, 'As long as I can get on the field and contribute something to the match,' he was good to go. He only played about 10 minutes. He got through it, but boy oh boy his ankle was sore. He was tough, he got through it. He was really sore during the game and after. That's a testament to him.
Donovan: I wasn't privy to all of the conversations, but I know from the front office staff, it went beyond the club. ESPN, Herbalife, sponsors are saying he has to play. Fortunately for all of them, David wanted to play and be part of it. The only person who might have had a say was Yallop at that point, but he was excited too. So we were all excited to have him play. I can't imagine a scenario at that point of MLS, and where the league was, of him not playing in that game.
Alexi Lalas (LA Galaxy general manager, 2006-08): From a competitive standpoint, it was not the right thing to have him play. But I think he knew that this moment was orchestrated for him and that this was one of those moments where if it was at all possible, that he needed to suck it up. And what we found was that it was something that he recognized and wanted to fulfill. It all really came from him. In no way were we forcing him to play. Did we want him to play, even if it was to step on the field? Yeah, but that was a mutual type of situation. If there was any way that we could do it without risking further damage to this player who was going to be very important to us in the long term, then that was something that we needed to look at.
Tim Scanlan (ESPN VP of live events): Sometimes the attention can act as pressure I guess. But we didn't say anything. I remember we used a Beatles tune to open the telecast. It was like, 'The Beatles arrived in New York, Beckham arrives in L.A.' Beckham may have felt that pressure just from the buildup from ESPN. We never would have said, 'We need him to play.' But I do remember the production meeting going into that match was all Beckham.
Should Beckham have played?
Donovan: No, of course not. I don't think anybody understands, one, the pain he was in, but two, the damage he could have done. But once you get to know David, that's who he is. He loved playing as a starting point, he loves the spotlight, he loves the energy and the excitement around it. And how could you keep someone from playing? If I was in his shoes, I would do everything I could to play in that game too. But there's no way he should have played. It was a pretty incredible effort that he was able to do that.
Martino: No, definitely not. He really shouldn't have played for the first couple of months. David just wanted to play every game that he possibly could. He had to be protected from himself, and he was just too big for Frank Yallop and Alexi Lalas to say no to, so when he wanted to play, he played, and he played a lot of times when he shouldn't.
The Beckham Cam
The over-the-top nature of what was taking place was epitomized by the Beckham Cam. Basically every move Beckham made -- every stretch, if he stood up from the bench, if he walked down from the bench when he started stretching -- was blown up.
Chris Alexopoulos, ESPN television producer: The Beckham Cam was an executive idea that nobody disputed because it made sense. The game was crafted around David Beckham's arrival. I don't think anybody thought it was wrong. I still don't think it was the worst thing ever, but I think it has become a statement about that era of ESPN's coverage, where the pendulum was heavy towards entertainment and the nonpurist side of the sport.
But the whole reason we were doing that show was because of Beckham.
In the middle of the game, I remember somebody from behind me shouting, 'He's putting his shoe on!' and I was like, 'Go to the Beckham Cam!' Seriously. That's the most indelible memory. It's also the most absurd and funniest part of the whole thing.
I also remember the camera shot where Beckham is on the bench and there's literally 100 camera guys surrounding him. We had this amazing shot of it from the sky cam right above. It kind of justified in some ways that that whole game was about Beckham and it wasn't about an exhibition game or Chelsea even. It was about Beckham's arrival in MLS. That shot does that approach a little bit of justice.
Scanlan: The Beckham Cam was controversial. I remember at a game later in the season getting a call from [MLS commissioner] Don Garber at halftime, and he asked me to see him. He was furious about the Beckham Cam. 'You're making a mockery of the league with this camera.' I said, 'We're really just taking advantage of his celebrity. No action has been missed. We know when to do it. We're just teasing the fact that he's going to be playing.' It ended up being a good conversation though.
Don Garber (MLS commissioner, 1999-present): I thought it was silly. Frankly, had we known about it, we would have pushed back hard on it. There was a lot of buildup on him coming to the league and it being the first game, and that put a lot of pressure to get him in the game. I thought that, 'Yes, this is something that can help our profile,' something that we never dreamed of at that time, but it needs to be authentic, and if it's not authentic then a lot of good work and significant investment was going to go to waste. I understood it, it was an opportunity to take an MLS exhibition game and make it something memorable and historic, but remember distinctly wishing that that didn't happen.
The match, which Chelsea won 1-0 on a Terry goal, turned into one giant tease. Yallop finally put Beckham into the match in the 78th minute, coming in for Gordon.
Joe Cannon, (LA Galaxy goalkeeper, 2007): That whole day was madness, incredible buzz in the stadium. Every two or three minutes, when the ball went out of bounds, the Jumbotron would show a celebrity. It was such a spectacle that I don't think anyone cared about the game in terms of a result. When he came in the crowd was just deafening. I remember his first touches. Everyone was so excited. I think he had one corner kick and people were going nuts. It was surreal, circus-like.
Martino: As an athlete you get lost in the world of competition. It wasn't until the board went up, I remember a couple of guys telling me that they noticed the crowd going berserk as David got up and started warming up, but it wasn't until the board went up that I even realized, 'Oh wow, David is coming into the game.'
Major League Soccer's dream had come true, but it very nearly became a nightmare in the first minute of stoppage time. A wayward touch saw the ball run away from Beckham, and as he tried to retrieve it, he was met with a thundering challenge from Chelsea midfielder Steve Sidwell that sent MLS's prize investment crumpling to the turf in apparent agony.
Yallop: He got cleaned out. You think he's broken his ankle or leg. You fear the worst. I don't know how long after it was until he played another game, he was still pretty sore. But he was tough, got up, played on and got through the game.
Ashley Cole: We knew Becks was obviously hampered with an injury, so we knew he was going to come on, and, of course, it was a preseason game, and kind of an exhibition game for Becks as well, his first game. We thought everyone was going to take it easy, but you know these guys in Europe, they've got to make a name for themselves there, they're fighting for their position in the Chelsea team.
[Sidwell] didn't take no prisoners, and as soon as the tackle has come in, we're like, 'Oh no. Don't injure him now.' Luckily, he's gotten up and he was fine. We couldn't believe it. If there's one man you don't want a tackle from that's Steve Sidwell because he was a strong guy. He said sorry, and he didn't mean it, but you're on the pitch, and you're on there to win whether it's a friendly or not, and you're fighting for your position in the Chelsea team, so there was a no-prisoners rule really.
Martino: A collective gasp was going around the stadium of, 'Oh no. Is this it? Is David Beckham's career going to be distilled down to a five-minute cameo in a friendly?' Of course, David popped right back up and went on.
Lalas: Everybody is wincing. There's this Faberge egg that is rolling around the field out there. And while you want it to be seen and to roll a little bit, you don't want it to hit anything. So once it started hitting things, then there was the concern. While we had gotten over the point where he could run, where yes, it was swollen, and yes, he was injured, and under normal circumstance there's no way he would probably play, this was not normal circumstance.
Even if he's healthy, he could have gotten in on a tackle. But with the injury, then you start seeing that egg shattering into a million pieces and not being at your disposal for a long time as it recuperates. So yeah, there was certainly a worry. But it showed everybody, including myself, that after all the glitz and the glamour, at his core David Beckham is a competitor, and even in a game from a competitive standpoint didn't mean anything, there was a competitive fire that propelled him.
Donovan: The air got taken out of the stadium. But fortunately for David, he played that style and was around players like that, that's kind of the English way. Even if you were significantly injured, or felt like you might be, there's sort of a 'get on with it' type of mentality. Fortunately, nothing serious happened, but that was the biggest risk of playing him, that something like that could happen, and fortunately, it was OK.
Garber: My heart wasn't in my throat, it was in my abdomen. I literally felt like I was just punched in the gut. But he's one tough son of a gun. People don't know that about him because of his celebrity, but he's one of the toughest guys I've ever met.
Beckham would go on to suffer through an injury-plagued season, including a knee injury he sustained in the final of a competition called the SuperLiga. All told, he played just five league games in 2007. But despite later tearing an Achilles tendon while on loan with AC Milan, Beckham's MLS stay ended in triumph with two league titles and priceless momentum generated for MLS.
Klein: That season, Beckham was frustrated, the team and the club were frustrated. I think one of the mistakes that was made was we back-loaded home games, back-loaded a bunch of things. It led to this sense that the season started when David arrived, which put us behind; it put him in a tough spot. We were never able to recover because each game became a spectacle. It was not about winning.
Once we had that understanding that for him to be a success, for our club to be a success, it had to be about the results that we saw on the field, once we got to that point, we started to see the true impact that David could have on our league. Since then, we've all learned a lot, and our league is vastly different than it was in 2007.
Garber: I think anything worth having is worth taking a lot of risk, and going through the recognition that you're going to have challenges to get to achieving the North Star, which for us was having David help us take our league to a higher level both in terms popularity here and recognition abroad. Part of that process was him going on loan to Milan. I can remember at that time that was something we struggled with, because he was here to play for the Galaxy, and from their fans' perspective to win championships, not go on loan and miss MLS games.
But in retrospect, what it did, and I don't think we got enough credit for this, is he was not here on a retirement tour. David was here just about at the end of his prime, so much so that he could go to one of the top teams in the world.