11.07.11

Is Beckham Leaving L.A.?

The soccer superstar and his Los Angeles Galaxy are expected to beat Houston for the MLS title on Nov. 20. The question is what happens after that—does he become king of L.A., or head to Europe in search of further glory and a knighthood?

Something big was surely at stake when the Los Angeles Galaxy squared off Sunday night against Real Salt Lake—love those soccer team names—in the MLS Western Conference final. Exactly what isn’t clear, but it was something bigger than the conference title. In what certainly will prove to be the highest rated professional soccer game ever played in America, there’s no doubt that the focus was David Beckham.

He is, after all, (a) the only player on either team whose name was used in a feature film, (b) the only soccer player ever married to a Spice Girl, and (c) the only player on an American professional soccer team whose name has ever been connected with an era, as in “the David Beckham era,” as they have called Beckham’s five years with the Galaxy.

The era hasn’t quite been what the Galaxy’s owners hoped it would be when they gave him a $32.5 annual salary in a potential $250 million deal. (The salary was pocket change for the almost-certain soon-to-be Sir David, who, for the last several years has been battling Tiger Woods for the unofficial title of Most Sought-After Endorser in Sports).

Los Angeles has never won the MLS cup, though the team did get as far as the finals in 2009, losing to Real Salt Lake 5–4 on penalties. Last year was even more disappointing, when L.A. came within a game of the MLS final but lost to Dallas in the Western conference final.

The consensus seems to be that Beckham did about as much as any man could do to make the Galaxy a credible franchise, though there were times when Southern California fans have questioned that. For instance, in 2009, when he was “loaned” by the Galaxy to A.C. Milan. When he returned to the Galaxy in July of that year, the first game was against—well, this is Hollywood, isn’t it?—A.C. Milan. It was probably the first time that hate banners were unfurled in a soccer game on American soil since 1994, when Italy played Ireland at Giants stadium in New Jersey. On that occasion, we didn’t know exactly what the bad language meant, as the signs were written in Italian and Gaelic, but during Beckham’s return to the Galaxy in 2009, there was no ambiguity about the messages, particularly the one that read, “Go Straight to Hell, Traitor.”

But Galaxy coach Bruce Arena put a nice spin on it, “They really must love him to react with such passion.”

There’s no doubt that Beckham inspires passion in both fans and teammates.  He was all over the field in the impressive 3–1 revenge victory over Real Salt Lake, and assisted in the game’s most sensational play, a terrific cross to Mike Magee that set up a spectacular header that broke a 1–1 tie in the 58th minute. As veteran commentator Ian Darke phrased, it, “There’s still a lot of magic in that right foot!”

The victory set up a Nov. 20 championship match with the Houston Dynamo, the game that Beckham has been waiting for since he came to L.A. It’s also the game that soccer enthusiasts in America have been waiting for. The Galaxy haven’t lost at home this season, and no matter how they poor-mouth it over the next two weeks, the truth is that they’re the favorites and they will be expected to win. Darke again: “Too much money has been spent on this team for anyone to expect anything less than a Galaxy victory.”

In truth, at age 36, Beckman probably isn’t the team’s best player. Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane, who also scored against RSL, are the team’s superstars. But Beckham is the engineer, the field manager, the quarterback, if you will, and as fiercely as he played against RSL, it’s unlikely that he will slack off against Houston—or that he will let the rest of the Galaxy slack off.

But what then? Beckham, professional in a way you want more American sports stars to be, declines to discuss it now. (And when he does come to a decision, I doubt he’s going to announce it on an ESPN prime-time show.)  Meanwhile, speculation is rampant. It’s no secret that he’s furiously sought after. The Daily Mail says Paris St. Germain has gone on the “charm offensive” to get him, and the newspaper Le Parisien even reported on Oct. 14 that a deal was close to being formalized.

Just today, Sportsmail Reporter claimed that the Barclay Premier League’s Tottenham club is “best positioned” to sign him because Beckham wants to go home.

All Beckham has said is that his family will influence his decision. The Beckhams have three young boys and a baby girl, and if those boys have any votes in the matter, I’ll bet they choose Disneyland and sunshine over Western European fog and drizzle.

If Beckham’s boys have any votes in the matter, I'll bet they choose Disneyland and sunshine over Western European fog and drizzle.

What’s likely, though, is that the outcome of the Nov. 20 championship game will shape Beckham’s decision. The Los Angeles area has no NFL team; the Dodgers, thanks to the long-running divorce battle between the McCourts, are a national joke, and the Lakers are in decline. For a couple of years there, it seemed as if the gamble on Beckham would never pay off, but now he’s in a position to be the king of L.A.—not a bad city to be king of. According to the company that handles Beckham’s endorsements, Companies House, his personal income rose more than 30 percent in 2010 to $24.9 million.

This year it’s anyone’s guess how much more that figure will soar. And if the Galaxy wins it all ...

Well, he could be the king of American soccer. His contract included an option to purchase his own franchise, which he can easily get in a new deal with the Galaxy.  Before he’s through, he may well end up buying the entire league. And there could be a host of little Beckhams to fill the roster.