So David Beckham is ending his five-and-a-half-year tenure with the Los Angeles Galaxy after the MLS Cup final on December 1. The announcement came late on Monday, and there was an element of surprise to it. When Beckham re-signed with the Galaxy in January 2012, the club announced that it was a two-year contract, and there was every indication that Beckham would play both years, finishing up at the end of 2013.
But if we've learned anything with Beckham on his U.S. adventure, one of those things is not to believe what you see in official press releases when he signs new deals. Remember the fiction that Beckham had signed a deal worth $250 million back in 2007? That wasn't close to being true. And in recent weeks, as tabloid reports came out saying Beckham might be leaving L.A., one source had told me that Beckham's current deal with the Galaxy was actually for one year with another at the option of the player. That now seems to have been the case.
Between now and the MLS Cup final, you'll hear a lot of eulogies about Beckham's MLS career and his impact on the U.S. league. In many ways, Beckham's most important moment Stateside came in January 2007 when he surprised the world by deciding to sign with the Galaxy. Beckham had always expressed his intention of playing in the U.S. someday, but he made the move earlier than most had imagined (he was just 31 at the time), and his decision instantly gave MLS and the Galaxy more credibility inside and outside the United States.
Beckham's arrival in L.A. with his family in July 2007 created a genuine media frenzy, but injuries derailed his first half-season, and he made his biggest impact off the field. More than 300,000 Beckham Galaxy jerseys were sold in 2007 alone, and when he was healthy enough to play, Beckham moved the needle on both TV ratings and attendance figures. The highlight of that first season was New York's wild 5-4 victory over L.A. in Giants Stadium before 66,237 fans on August 18, 2007, in which Beckham set up three goals and the Gotham buzz was enormous.
There was a strange disconnect during those first two years. Beckham became an A-List celebrity in the United States, which loves its celebrities, but most of the Americans who knew of Beckham couldn't tell you how his team was doing. In 2007 and '08 that was certainly for the best. The Galaxy failed to make the playoffs both years, and the mystifying underachievement was only one source of the friction between L.A.'s two biggest stars, Beckham and Landon Donovan, who criticized Beckham's leadership skills in my 2009 book.
But the hiring of Bruce Arena as L.A.'s coach and general manager at the end of 2008 turned things around for Beckham and the team on the field. Beckham and Donovan reconciled, and the Galaxy reached the MLS Cup final in 2009, '11 and '12, winning it last year. Beckham made the MLS Best XI in a 2011 season that deserved plenty of commendation, and if he goes out on a championship note a week from Saturday it will be a fitting end to his on-field career here.
The biggest difference during Beckham's last two years in L.A. was his commitment to the Galaxy. Until then, he had put his MLS team well down his list of priorities, which was clear as he went on loan to AC Milan in '09 and '10 and focused on trying to make England's 2010 World Cup team. The Galaxy's fans were rightly unhappy with Beckham's half-hearted commitment early on -- in total he would end up appearing in only 98 of a possible 176 regular-season games -- but he went a long way toward making up for that in '11 and '12.
What comes next for the 37-year-old Beckham? Well, he indicated in the press release on Monday that he feels he has one more playing adventure left in him, and a source told me on Monday night that his future could include China, Paris, Australia, Brazil, Italy, England or Russia. (The source added that Beckham leaves "on very good terms" with the Galaxy and Arena, and that nothing negative with the Galaxy led to this decision.)
Beckham also has said that he plans to exercise his contractual option to become an MLS owner at a below-market value that I have been told is $25 million. (The most recent expansion fee for Montreal was $40 million.) Having Beckham associated with MLS in the long term can only be a good thing, and the main question is which city he would be associated with. (The one expansion team he would not be associated with is the second New York City-area team that the league hopes will be MLS's 20th franchise.)
As we have learned since MLS started in 1996, there is no lightning in a bottle for making a domestic soccer league big in the United States. Beckham himself found out that was the case -- MLS attendance is at an all-time high, but TV ratings are still low and stagnant -- and yet it's also true that Beckham's tenure in L.A. is one of the most important chapters in the league's history. He may not have met the outlandish initial projections that were lavished upon his arrival, but he did his part, and he stayed longer than anyone would have expected.