As the LA Galaxy get ready to take on the Houston Dynamo in the 2011 MLS Cup Final later tonight, one of the more intriguing questions will be; "Is this the last time we will see David Beckham in Major League Soccer?"
It's hard to believe that is was nearly five years ago that the superstar English midfielder agreed to join a still developing, still largely unproven league in 2007. At the time, Beckham laid out his reasons why he had decided to join MLS, instead of continuing to play for Real Madrid, or one of the many other top level European clubs;
"The main thing for me is to improve the soccer, to improve the standard, and to be part of history really because I think soccer can be a lot bigger in the U.S."
It sounded like a daunting challenge, because as many of you reading this know quite well already; in a country where American football is king, soccer has simply found a hard time grabbing hold.
Of course, the media was going into a frenzy at the thought of one of the most recognizable faces in the world moving to LA. Never mind the fact that he was coming to the U.S. to promote the sport of soccer. Let's be honest; most Americans who were excited about the arrival of Beckham didn't give a damn about the soccer. They were excited about all of the potential photo-ops Beckham and his wife, Victoria of Spice Girl fame, would provide.
And who could forget that introduction ceremony in July of 2007? The one where you would have thought then Galaxy GM Alexi Lalas was introducing Jesus Christ himself to the Galaxy faithful.
Unfortunately, the good vibes wouldn't last for long. It appears that a number of people on all sides of Beckham's move underestimated just how difficult the move to MLS would be for a player used to playing on the world's biggest stages, in some of the world's biggest matches, making some of the biggest plays the sport has seen, and living an extravagant lifestyle that only one of the richest athletes in the world could afford.
For one, I don't think Beckham anticipated just what exactly he was getting himself into. I don't think he realized just how much improvement Major League Soccer needed to make to become a viable sports league in America. At the time, some of Beckham's teammates were getting paid under $13, 000 a year. Some of them were working side jobs just to make ends meet.
Beckham would be making over $6 million dollars a year just off of his LA player contract alone. This didn't even count the millions upon millions he would make from endorsements. So, there was obviously going to be somewhat of a disconnect between Beckham and his teammates right off the bat. After all, Beckham was used to playing with teammates that were making millions of dollars as well. I don't think it initially occurred to him just how different of a lifestyle he was living compared to most of his Galaxy teammates.
As far as Galaxy management and MLS commissioner Don Garber were concerned; I don't think they realized how much of a diva Beckham could really be. A star of his caliber is used to getting what he wants, when he wants it. In Sports Illustrated writer Grant Wahl's book, The Beckham Experiment, he chronicles just how Beckham's handlers essentially called all of the shots for the team, right from the get-go. One of those calls from the beginning being that the captain's armband would have to be given to Beckham, even before he'd ever actually played a game for LA.
Landon Donovan was the captain of the team at the time, so as you can imagine, Beckham and his handlers rubbed Donovan the wrong way, right from the start, which probably started the awkward war of words we saw Donovan, and Beckham engage in through the media.
It also didn't help that as Beckham realized just how shitty things were in MLS at the time ( horrible field conditions, no five star hotels to stay at every night, etc), his dedication to LA began to waver. Basically, Beckham was thinking, "What the hell did I get myself into?"
In 2008, LA agreed to loan Beckham out to Italian giants AC Milan, with the agreement that Beckham would be back for the start of the Galaxy's 2009 campaign. However, after having success with the Italian side, Beckham requested a permanent transfer to Milan. Beckham insisted that he wanted the transfer only because he wanted to stay in the good graces of England national team manager Fabio Capello, and that playing for the national team was his number one priority.
I'm sure playing for England was part of the reason, but Beckham wasn't really fooling anyone in America; MLS wasn't what he had expected and he wanted out. The transfer request was seen as Beckham inching his way towards the exits.
Upon his return to the Galaxy, a number of LA fans were starting to turn on Beckham. Fans were beginning to grow tired of the constant speculation of a Beckham move back to Europe. Fans' patience was growing thin with Beckham's perceived lack of dedication.
The rift between Beckham and some of the LA fans reached the tipping point during his return to the club on July 20th, 2009 when Beckham confronted a heckling fan.
Fall 2009 brought on yet another loan spell with AC Milan. It appeared that despite the obviously positive financial impact Beckham had made for MLS during his stay, conventional wisdom was that the Beckham experiment would probably end up being deemed a flop.
Injuries had taken their toll on Beckham once again in 2010, as he suffered a torn ACL which kept him out of the majority of the Galaxy's 2010 campaign. As Beckham's contract with the Galaxy started to wind down, it looked as if the public perception of his move to MLS would be that of a failure.
Except two things happened in 2011. First, Beckham was able to stay healthy for most of the '11 season, and it appeared that for the first time since he arrived in America, Beckham finally dedicated himself solely to the Galaxy, and to finally winning an MLS Cup.
The results? One of the most impressive season performances from an MLS team ever, as LA were able to dominate the league, finishing with 67 points, and winning the Supporter's Shield.
For his part, Beckham was able to put together by far his best MLS campaign, finishing with 2 goals, and 15 assists in the regular season, and making himself a viable MLS MVP candidate. It was exactly the kind of season I'm sure everyone had imagined we'd see every year from Beckham when he signed on in 2007.
Unfortunately, that wasn't meant to be for a variety of reasons. But what we do know is that Beckham and the Galaxy are one win away from holding the MLS Cup, and for all intents and purposes, perhaps turning the view of Beckham's MLS legacy from somewhat of a disappointment, to a success.
Is that a fair assessment based solely off of one successful season? Probably not. 2011 has been one big high for Beckham and LA, but it can't totally erase a good three years or so of tumultuous times that the club experienced when Beckham wasn't totally dedicated, or when he was feuding with Landon Donovan, or when he was on the medical table, or when he was asking for a transfer out of MLS.
Still, at the end of the day, it would be hard for anyone to make a case that Beckham hasn't done more good for the league than just about any other single player in MLS. Who has had a greater impact in promoting the league?
I suppose I should know about as well as anyone. After all, back in 2007 I was merely a casual soccer fan, primarily only watching the English Premier League. I actually wasn't interested in Major League Soccer at all at the time. I had heard all of the talk that it was a talent-less league, that it would never catch on. That it was basically the equivalent of the NBA's D-League. In all honesty, I had never given MLS a chance... that was until a certain Englishmen made his debut for LA against my other favorite club, Chelsea, in a friendly televised on ESPN on July 21, 2007. For me, it was the hype of Beckham that persuaded me to actually tune in to a match.
It's slightly embarrassing for me to admit, but it was the event that peaked my initial interest in MLS. I'm sure there are thousands of MLS fans who were introduced much the same way, with the arrival of David Beckham, and in that regard, whether Beckham gets to raise the MLS Cup tonight or not, he has been able to help raise the profile of soccer in America, which has proven to be no easy feat. In that respect alone, Beckham's time in Major League Soccer should be considered more success rather than failure.
And all of that money Beckham's generated for the league? Well, that's nice, too.