CARSON, Calif. -- Depending on your criteria, this is the second or third attempt to fit David Beckham into a club and league where, for two years, success has eluded everyone involved. The puzzle has proved more complicated than anyone -- perhaps most of all, Beckham himself -- ever expected. Can it finally work?
The right pieces finally may be falling into place, even if it's hard not to feel like the whole thing is a house of cards waiting to come down. Certain elements are encouraging: One is that the man himself has been marginalized to a degree he never was when Major League Soccer and the Los Angeles Galaxy rolled out the red carpet for him almost exactly two years ago.
It's not just that Beckham's management company, 19 Entertainment, no longer plays any advising role with the Galaxy, it's also that Beckham's direct influence as a player has dropped through his insistence on extending his loan with AC Milan.
Though it obviously handcuffed the Galaxy from signing anyone to replace him, the long loan also allowed coach Bruce Arena to mold his team into a unit that didn't depend on Beckham for results. The defense has improved considerably, and while Los Angeles doesn't look as creative and dynamic as it did at the height of the Ruud Gullit era with Beckham on board, the squad itself seems far steadier.
So far, the results have backed that up. With the Galaxy on a three-game winning streak, Beckham returns to a club that definitely could use his help, but not one that needs to be saved by him. That's important, as the English midfielder always has performed better as an important role player, not as someone who takes over a match in DiegoMaradona-like fashion.
"David's not the type of guy who is going to carry a game," Galaxy veteran Chris Klein said. "He does what he does and he does it very, very well."
Another vital element is that Beckham has been put on notice. The statistics don't lie in terms of how his production dropped in the final half of last season. Nor is there any escaping the rather damning fact that the Galaxy have a better winning percentage during Beckham's tenure in games in which he didn't play.
Then, of course, there's the prickly matter of that book by Sports Illustrated's Grant Wahl, The Beckham Experiment, which, by no accident of timing, hits shelves Tuesday. Few would argue Landon Donovan did the right thing in complaining to a reporter rather than the man himself about a perceived lack of effort. But if you look at Beckham's history, he has performed his best in response to adversity. Though Donovan made his most critical comments at the close of last year, his remarks have gained new credibility as a result of his own recent eye-opening performances at the Confederations Cup.
There's probably no other MLS player who would have been able to criticize Beckham like that and be taken seriously. But with Donovan making the statements, the ensuing publicity has resulted in new scrutiny for Beckham. It's a challenge for a player who otherwise could be far more distracted by adding to his caps with England and arranging another loan deal with Milan.
"I do regret some things I said, and I regret the way it was said," Donovan said Monday after the first team practice with Beckham. However, the U.S. star thought clearing the air in the end had a positive result. "I believe that we're getting to the bottom of things that we needed to. So I'm excited for that."
Beyond proving himself to any skeptical teammates, though, Beckham has another important connection tying him to working for a better outcome with the Galaxy: his wife, Victoria. For better or worse, her love for Los Angeles and the life here has been an integral part of the reason Beckham has kept his family here, even as other aspects of the move haven't worked out as well.
When Beckham landed his loan at Milan, his family didn't leave L.A. to follow him to Italy, except for occasional visits. Ultimately, Beckham may outlast Donovan at the club, especially if Donovan remains open to offers overseas that may come his way at the end of the MLS season.
"My family is happy here," Beckham said. "Where my family is happy, then I'm happy. Like I said, we love it here. I'm not going anywhere."
One place where Beckham most definitely hopes to go to, however, is back to Milan for another loan. Another key element is how all parties involved with Beckham understand each other better now. AC Milan now knows it cannot poach Beckham on the cheap simply because the player is partial to the club. Galaxy chief Tim Leiweke and Arena no longer will be blindsided by Beckham deciding another organization is a better fit.
Things run more smoothly when people all know the score, and there are whispers that a preliminary deal has been hammered out to allow Beckham to return to Milan for another extended loan that leads right into the 2010 World Cup, but then return to the Galaxy for a late-season reunion. "I want to go back to AC Milan in January," Beckham reiterated.
And while it might seem like the Galaxy again get the shaft in missing Beckham for so much of the season, the playoff structure of MLS means that joining late wouldn't necessarily cost the squad a chance at the title. "It's not that big of a deal," Klein said about that possibility. "We're a more mature club now."
Ultimately, what best could solve the Beckham puzzle is the most important piece: his skills as a player. These have been obscured somewhat by the fascination over his celebrity, the sniping within a once-stable club and the circus that resulted when every team in the league was gunning to both defeat Goldenballs and his team, yet also take advantage of his popularity.
All that aside, Beckham has specific talents that raise the level of the league and his team to new heights where it most matters: on the field. That's where Donovan hoped they could rebuild harmony between them. The timing couldn't be more perfect for Beckham's first game back Thursday at Giants Stadium -- the Galaxy and New York Red Bulls have staged memorable contests in the past.
"What we do on the field is very natural for us, because we see the game the same way," Donovan said. "It was exciting to have him back and making passes and seeing things that he sees. I'm excited to have him back for Thursday. It's going to be a lot of fun."
Two seasons of trial and error could be the lesson everyone involved needed to learn. No crazy schedules, no bizarre SuperClub promises, no heroically backfiring efforts to play injured, no thinking outsiders can solve everything, no assumptions and pouting without open communication. Honest, hard-working soccer is what Beckham has excelled at in the past, and a return to that could make all the difference in the world.
"If we can allow David to do what he does very well, we're obviously going to be more successful," Klein said. "And at the same time, I think he'll be more successful."
As with many puzzles, the most vexing issues often require the simplest solutions.