As Los Angeles Galaxy celebrated landing the prized signature of David Beckham back in 2007, expectations jumped to a new high. Even with the understanding that one man alone could not guarantee a string of trophies, the club surely foresaw nothing but victory parades and packed trophy cabinets as Beckham arrived in Hollywood.
More than that, he was going to put the league on the map across the world, attract other star names and generate a previously unthinkable cash injection through shirt sales.
Back in England, eyebrows were raised over the decision – after all, why turn down potential moves to AC Milan or Inter in favour of the MLS? But there was a shared feeling that Beckham would dominate across the Atlantic, in a league that possessed few players that English supporters would consider household names.
Yet, with the former England captain’s contract set to expire at the end of this season and Galaxy without an MLS Cup triumph during the Beckham era, another, entirely different script has developed and time is running out to find a happy ending. Beckham has indicated that he may stay beyond the end of this campaign, but it is hard to believe he would turn down a move back to Europe if Tottenham Hotspur or AC Milan, for instance, came calling.
So, if 2011 marks the end of Beckham’s time in North America, how will the past four years be assessed? In all likelihood, it will be with mixed feelings as far as Galaxy and the MLS are concerned. He brought interest and merchandising sales, but the league is still seen as a poor relation in Europe and beyond – and Galaxy have not enjoyed the success widely predicted.
Rewinding to 2007, it quickly became clear that Beckham would not have things all his own way in his new surroundings. Though he had more time on the ball than in his Manchester United days, he had to deal with well-organised opponents and less gifted team-mates, many of whom were earning a fraction of his vast salary.
His first season in Los Angeles should have lowered Galaxy’s expectations. The team had stars in Beckham and Landon Donovan, but clear weaknesses in other areas cost them a spot in the post-season. A year later, Galaxy suffered the same fate, leading to the exits of Ruud Gullit and Alexi Lalas. He seemed to have cracked the code in 2009 as Los Angeles reached the MLS Cup, only for penalty shootout heartbreak to crush that dream.
Again, Galaxy were among the favourites in 2010, but Beckham played little part due to an Achilles tendon injury that cost him the majority of the season. He returned towards the end of the season, but Los Angeles, despite finishing the regular season with the league’s best record, were dumped out in the Conference final by Dallas.
The whole Beckham adventure goes beyond the on-field highs and lows however. From reported dressing room fallouts to lengthy injuries and off-season loan deals, he has spent plenty of time in the headlines – just not always for the reasons Galaxy envisioned four years ago.
But Beckham, who has wowed crowds with some stunning free-kicks and cross-field passing, is nothing but enthusiastic when assessing the experience as a whole.
“I’ve enjoyed it,” Beckham explained, after Galaxy’s 0-0 draw with Toronto FC. “It’s been great. I think off the field it’s been very successful but I want to be successful with Galaxy and we’ve been close the last two years so hopefully this is the season.”
And so there is much riding on the months ahead in terms of the legacy of the Beckham experiment. But do not write him off just yet. Galaxy have the firepower to compete in an ultra-competitive Western Conference and, although they have hardly set the pulses racing thus far in 2011 with nine points from six games, performances are bound to improve.
Manager Bruce Arena admits that Los Angeles still have a long way to go before they reach a level they are happy with – but, as last season proved, a lower playoff seeding is not necessarily a disaster. Few of the other top sides would fancy a tie against Galaxy early in the post-season.
Beyond this campaign, nothing is set in stone for Beckham. The former Manchester United man has no shortage of openings to explore, both in the remaining years of his playing career and with the Beckham brand. Then there is the 2012 Olympics that he undoubtedly hopes to experience.
In an unforgettable career, Beckham’s MLS adventure might not have been the sparkling addition to his CV that he had hoped for – but he will not look back on it with regrets, especially if Galaxy finish the season lifting the MLS Cup.