So now that Beckham says he wants to come back to Los Angeles and Milan says it won't push to make the loan a permanent transfer, the bigger question is whether Beckham, 33, will want to stay with the bottom-feeding Galaxy after the '09 MLS season.
SI.com has learned from from multiple sources that Beckham's contract allows him to walk away from the Galaxy after the '09 season, two years earlier than any previous reports had stated.
Beckham does indeed have a five-year, $32.5 million contract with Major League Soccer (plus incentives and a percentage of jersey sales, among other things) that runs through the end of 2011. That's not news.
But Beckham can opt out of the last two years if he so desires, according to a previously undisclosed clause in his contract.
And that is news. Big news.
That Beckham holds that option is an important distinction, one that has never been acknowledged publicly by MLS, the Galaxy or Beckham's reps -- all of which refused to comment to SI.com regarding Beckham's contract. (In MLS contracts, which are owned by the single-entity league instead of the individual teams, the league usually controls the option years, not the players.)
When Beckham was first introduced as a Galaxy player in July '07 to enormous global media hype, he announced that he was "very proud to be a part of [MLS] over the next five years, and maybe a few more after that." Galaxy and MLS officials have also spoken routinely of Beckham's "five-year commitment" over the long haul.
That's still possible, of course. But back in '07 nobody would have predicted that the Galaxy would be such a dysfunctional team. Until he joined the Galaxy, a Beckham team had never gone more than five-straight league games without a win in his storied 13-year European club career. (The five-game winless streaks happened once with Manchester United in 1995-96 and once with Real Madrid in '03-04.) But in the 14 months since Beckham joined the Galaxy, L.A. has had winless streaks of seven league games in '07 and an astonishing 12 league games in '08.
(It should be noted that: 1. AC Milan is paying Beckham's salary during his loan period, according to a source close to the situation. That would be just less than $1 million if Beckham stays for two months, so the Galaxy is at least getting something tangible in return for the loan. 2. Beckham's contract does include the option to purchase an MLS team after he's done playing for the Galaxy, confirming the scoop first reported by Anderson Cooper on 60 Minutes.)
If Becks wants to extricate himself from the Galaxy's losing ways -- L.A. is at its lowest point in club history, having missed the MLS playoffs for three straight years -- he can leave the team as a free agent after next season, no strings attached.
What else does it mean? For starters, Beckham has even more leverage in his relationship with the Galaxy than was previously known. If Beckham opted out after the '09 season, there would be no shortage of interest from some of Europe's top clubs, and not just AC Milan.
Is it still theoretically possible that Beckham has played his last game with the Galaxy? Yes, although those chances have diminished in recent days. I have always maintained that if Beckham told the Galaxy he wanted a full transfer back to a European team the Galaxy wouldn't hold him hostage and would agree to sell him (for the right price, of course). What's more, the fact that Beckham has only one year to fulfill on his MLS contract (instead of three) would reduce his transfer fee significantly.
But Beckham has now gone on the record saying his desire is to come back to the Galaxy in '09 -- causing a sigh of relief for Galaxy officials, who are trying to sell season tickets right now -- and Milan has backed off its previous statements that it would try to make the loan a permanent transfer.
So let's assume that Beckham is back in GalaxyLand next March. The bottom line is his MLS contract situation makes it even more critical for the Galaxy to turn things around in '09 and have a successful season under new head coach and general manager Bruce Arena.
Tim Leiweke, the CEO of the Anschutz Entertainment Group, which owns the Galaxy, is the man who landed Beckham for L.A. in January '07. It's Leiweke who has the closest relationship of any Galaxy official with Beckham and his advisers at 19 Entertainment (Simon Fuller, the creator of American Idol, and Beckham's personal manager, Terry Byrne).
Leiweke didn't mince words when I spoke to him recently in a rare interview at his office across from the Staples Center.
"Does the David Beckham experiment work? I think next year is a really important year for us. A really important year," Leiweke told me.
Leiweke neglected to mention that Beckham can walk after '09, but that fact goes hand-in-hand with what Leiweke said:
"David Beckham has been a class act with us from Day 1, and I've got no regrets of any kind on that commitment that we've made. But do I understand that that commitment is not going to work and will not be deemed a success if at the end of the day we have another year like the last two? I get it. And so does David."
Of course, just because Beckham has the option to leave after '09 doesn't mean he'll exercise that option. (Beckham doesn't have to exercise his option to buy an MLS team down the road either.)
And keep in mind, Beckham would have several incentives to stay with Los Angeles. By all accounts he enjoys living with his family in L.A., where he has been an undeniable success as a celebrity, and it's understood that Beckham receives more money from his sponsors for playing in the expanding U.S. soccer market than he would if he returned to playing in Europe. It also goes without saying that Beckham, a fierce competitor, would not like to leave the U.S. without turning the Galaxy into an on-field success story.
That said, losing has been a major drag for a player who never went through such misery at Manchester United and Real Madrid.
"I've not enjoyed not having success with the Galaxy, but I've enjoyed having success with the sport in this country so far," Beckham said last week. "But the thing that I will enjoy more is winning trophies with the Galaxy.
"That's gone this season. And next season we have to put that right, and hopefully we'll win something."
And with that, the countdown to the Galaxy's pivotal '09 campaign starts now. When you have David Beckham on your roster, there's no such thing as a rebuilding year.