CARSON, Calif. — As summer turned to fall, there appeared little doubt that David Beckham would be returning to the LA Galaxy for a seventh season. He loved the club and his teammates, he and his family adored their life in sunny Southern California. And the work he'd accomplished, on and off the field, was gratifying and promised still greater reward.
At 37, he had only so much time left to play the game that had enthralled him since boyhood — that still meant more to him than everything else, family aside — and nearly everyone assumed he'd spend the last of his playing days at the Home Depot Center.
“I would think,” Bruce Arena said back in September, “David would finish his career here.”
Landon Donovan agreed: “Yeah, I think that's sort of a given.”
A month later, it was over. Beckham, the most high-profile player to feature in Major League Soccer's 17 seasons, decided his work here was done, that other challenges awaited, and that the final kick of this season would be his last with the Galaxy. He let the world know last week, without providing much detail, promising that his commitment to the club and the league would not wane no matter where his next adventure took him.
What changed? Beckham, who will play his final competitive game with LA on Saturday in MLS Cup 2012 against the Houston Dynamo, isn't saying, beyond noting that he'd “achieved everything I wanted to achieve with the Galaxy,” and maybe that's all there is to it.
He has delivered on the promise to prod MLS to bigger, better things, bringing worldwide attention to the league and his club and opening a door for other top players — Thierry Henry, Robbie Keane, Torsten Frings and whoever LA bring in to replace the English icon foremost among them — to come to America.
All things must end, and Beckham, while acknowledging that “right now I'm more than happy in LA, love living here, love the club, and everything is good,” offered a hint of what was to come a month before he decided his tenure would end.
“I've always said I'm happy here, but even when I was in Manchester, even in Madrid, never say never,” Beckham said during the last week of September. “Things can change very quickly. I've always tried to stay away from saying, 'This is where I'm going to finish my career.' I'd love to have finished my career in Manchester, and expected to, and it didn't happen. ... Things can change in football very quickly. They did for me in Manchester, and I wasn't expecting that.
“End of the day, I'm 37 and at some point will stop playing. Whether there will be another change in my career, life, who knows?”
Now everybody knows, and as Beckham prepares to sift through the “exciting opportunities on the table” for his services, debate has begun on what he's meant for soccer on these shores, what he can offer prospective employers, and how much his final years are worth. Galaxy players and coaches are in agreement on most things.
Arena, the Galaxy's head coach, thinks Beckham has “done more in MLS and for the Galaxy than any of us would have ever imagined. He's worth a lot more to the league than we could have ever thought.”
Since his arrival, the league has expanded from 14 to 19 clubs and brought online soccer-specific stadiums in Kansas City, New Jersey, Salt Lake City, Philadelphia and Houston, with a groundbreaking earlier this month for the San Jose Earthquakes' new facility. Sponsorship, merchandising and television rights fees have exploded, attendance is up considerably, and coverage of the league in the mainstream media has grown. Beckham isn't responsible for all of this, of course, but his presence has made much of it possible while giving the league visibility overseas.
“We've done a lot of good things since David's been here,” Arena said. “We're a global brand now. Whatever they pay him, he's been more than worth it. I think he's given the league credibility worldwide. He's been probably more valuable to the league than to the LA Galaxy, if that's possible to say and if that makes sense.”
WATCH: Beckham explains his decision
Donovan said Beckham's impact was “in some ways hard to measure; in other ways, it's very easy to measure."
"We went up to Seattle [for the Western Conference Championship's second leg] and played in front of 45,000 people, and that didn't happen before he got here," the Galaxy captain said. "... I think long-term, it's probably harder to measure just how important [he's been]. But there's no doubt that what he's done here has been an overwhelming success. It's been tremendous for our sport in this country.”
His departure surprised and saddened teammates, who universally praised Beckham's leadership, locker-room presence and importance to the Galaxy's rise from its post-2005 shambles into the league's most successful side, one that is seeking its second straight title and playing in its third MLS Cup final in four years.
He's been the catalyst of a vibrant attack, a deep-lying playmaker whose ability to stretch defenses with that glorious right foot makes LA dangerous from virtually any spot on the field.
“His passing ability, I know a lot of times, people think it's overrated, but for us it's actually underrated,” Donovan said. “The ability for him to stretch the field is more important than meets the eye.
"I think about in football terms, when you have a quarterback who can throw a deep pass and really open up the field, then it opens up the middle of the field, so that defenders are more aware of what's behind them. When you have someone who can't do that, it's very easy for defenders to close the field, and his ability to stretch teams like that is important. And then his simple five- and 10-yard passing is really special, too, aside from all the obviously special things he does on set pieces.”
Will that translate elsewhere, if he returns to the English Premier League? Those appear to be possibilities, and speculation on other destinations include Australia (Beckham's people say no), China and the Middle East (Beckham's thoughts: “I don't think so”), Brazil and France (but Paris Saint-Germain, which dangled a lucrative offer a year ago, says it has no interest).
New reports claim his management team is talking to the New York Cosmos, who next year will debut in the second-tier NASL and have aspirations of joining MLS, about a player/ownership deal that follows reports from Britain that Beckham's wife wants to move to New York to advance her fashion career.
Beckham says he won't make any decisions until heading back to London for Christmas.
Could he still play, and still make a difference, in the EPL?
“One hundred percent,” says midfielder Mike Magee. “That's why teams are trying to sign him. Obviously, PSG [last year] — they know the difference between good and bad, and they were ready to throw the house at him. It's not even a question that he could play with any team in the world and stand out.”
Even at 37, 38 come May?
“He's not going to cover the ground that he did,” Galaxy associate head coach Dave Sarachan said. “But when you add the experience and his IQ, and, obviously, he's gifted in terms of what he can do in delivering a ball, he's compensated for the fact that when you're 37 you're not going to run like you did at 30. But he's so smart and he's so experienced that he knows to manage that.”
If managed properly, as Arena has the past couple of years — giving him days off from training, rotating him out of the lineup during heavy stretches, allowing him to miss games for special occasions and commitments elsewhere — Beckham can pay dividends.
“He has the ability to go four or five games where he's back at, like, 29- or 30-year-old Beckham,” Donovan said. “It's hard for him to do that over the course of 35 or 40 games, but over a three- or four- or five-game stretch, he can still do it.”
Beckham says he'll still be around HDC next year when he's not off playing wherever it is he'll be playing, and he plans to take an ownership stake in MLS — perhaps with the Galaxy, who are for sale — when he steps off the field for the last time.
“I love the players here, I love the fans, I love the owners and Bruce ...,” he said. “I'm sad to be leaving that.”
His final moments, an unannounced postseason tour aside, will come in Saturday's MLS Cup, which has taken on added importance for the Galaxy, who want to send Beckham away a winner. He expects an emotional afternoon.
“I always want to win any game, whether it's a game with my kids in the backyard, whether it's MLS Cup final,” he said. “I was actually quite emotional after the game [a week ago] in Seattle. It was the last game in a different stadium in my career here with the Galaxy. I have a feeling it's going to be even more so next Saturday.
“It's been my home the last six years. I've had some amazing times, one or two difficult times, but some amazing memories here in this stadium and with this team. To be able to finish my career as a Galaxy player in my own stadium in a cup final is special enough. Hopefully, to win it would finish everything off for me.”
Scott French covers the LA Galaxy for MLSsoccer.com