HARRISON, N.J. -- There was a cool moment at Red Bull Arena on Tuesday night. In the second half of New York's 2-0 win against Los Angeles, David Beckham readied for a free kick near midfield by tossing the ball forward a couple yards. His old pal Thierry Henry noticed and pushed the ball back a few feet toward Beckham. Then Beckham got one of those sour, competitive looks on his face, the same look he probably flashed when he was eight years old.
The message was clear: the two biggest names in Major League Soccer still care, and judging by their performances this year Beckham and Henry are hardly treating MLS like a retirement home. Henry's 14 goals, tied for tops in the league, are the main reason New York still has a playoff pulse. As for Beckham, it's fair to say that he's somewhat quietly having his finest MLS season since joining the Galaxy in 2007.
At this point Beckham's case for making his first MLS Best XI team is unassailable. His 15 assists are tops in the league. His L.A. Galaxy (now 18-4-10, 64 points) is poised to have the second-best regular season in MLS' 16-year history. (More on that later.) And now it can be said: Beckham has shown a season-long commitment to the Galaxy in 2011 that proves L.A. is his No. 1 priority. He may not win the MLS most valuable player award, but he's certainly a deserving candidate.
It's hard to believe that slightly more than four years have passed since Beckham's arrival in Los Angeles, one of the biggest stories in the history of American soccer. L.A.'s struggles in his first two seasons are well-documented, and it's hard not to play the what if game: What if Beckham hadn't been injured upon his '07 arrival, when U.S. interest was white hot? What if Bruce Arena had been Beckham's coach from the start, building a solid Galaxy team the way Arena has since taking over in late '08? What if Beckham hadn't gone on loan to AC Milan twice and suffered a torn Achilles there in March 2010?
Well, then we might have seen more Beckham MLS seasons like this one, only his second full season in the league. Now 36, Beckham does not rely so much on athleticism, but he never really did in the first place. These days he roams the central midfield for L.A., unspooling passes on a dime like few players in the league, as I saw firsthand from the field-side press box on Tuesday night. Beckham can still hit devastating set pieces, and he's not above getting his uniform dirty in the tackle. (Sometimes he has too much bite, in fact. Beckham is tied for the league lead in yellow cards with 10.)
Perhaps most importantly, it's the soccer that matters most for Beckham in MLS these days. He no longer has to play every game to keep ticket-buying fans satisfied. Arena has smartly limited the wear on tear on Beckham this season by leaving him out of the lineup on occasion: Beckham has missed seven of the Galaxy's 32 games. As a result, he should be fresh for the MLS Cup playoffs, which start at the end of this month. The postseason is what matters most, of course, and for all of L.A.'s success the past two seasons the Galaxy has yet to win an MLS Cup title during the Beckham Era.
What's clear for now is that the 2011 Galaxy has a good shot of completing the second-best regular season in MLS history. If L.A. can get four points in its last two matches before the playoffs, it would be only the third MLS team ever to average two or more points per game in a regular season*. L.A. has no chance of catching the 1998 Galaxy, which went 22-6-4 (70 points) and averaged 2.19 points per game. But with two more wins the '11 Galaxy would finish 20-4-10 (70 points, 2.06 points per game) and supersede the 2005 San Jose Earthquakes, who went 18-4-10 (64 points, 2.00 points per game).
(* In calculating the best regular seasons in MLS history, I had to account for 1996-99, when MLS settled ties with the dreaded shootout. I went back and counted all shootout results as ties worth one point, as they would have been if played today. As a result, the '98 Galaxy went from 24-8 to 22-6-4 -- 70 points -- while '98 D.C. United went from 24-8 to 17-5-10 -- 61 points. United's '99 outfit went from 23-9 to 17-6-9, or 60 points.)
A couple things stood out for me. First, the '98 Galaxy was an absolute buzz saw, boasting a monstrous plus-41 goal differential. Only one other team in league history has done better than plus-25 over a season: '98 D.C. United at plus-30. This year's Galaxy is at plus-21, which means it wins a lot of close games.
Second, neither of the two teams with the best-ever MLS regular seasons won the MLS Cup title -- and neither even reached the Cup final. The '98 Galaxy was beaten in the Western Conference final by Chicago, while the '05 Earthquakes were upset in the West semifinals by Los Angeles. That's something the Galaxy and Beckham will have to keep in mind as they enter the postseason, not least because one of the league's top three teams (Seattle or Salt Lake) would likely be looming in the West final.
Beckham, you may recall, is in the final year of his MLS contract, and he reiterated this week that he'll wait until the season is over to make a decision on next year. It appears that his options will include an extension with L.A. (likely for one year) and potential offers from Paris Saint-Germain, Tottenham Hotspur and Queens Park Rangers. The most intriguing may be nouveaux-riche PSG, which is awash in petrodollars, but my guess is that Beckham stays one more year with Los Angeles. His family enjoys living there, and Beckham is enjoying his soccer in MLS these days.
The rest of us are enjoying watching him play, too. Five seasons into the Beckham experiment, Beckham has earned all the accolades he's getting for his 2011 season.