Beckham leaves MLS on his own terms

When a professional athlete’s mid-30s dawn, the talk turns to the end.

Does he have anything left? Should he retire? And if so, where, when and how?

If an athlete is a true great at his sport, the terms become pertinent, lest he tarnish a legacy carefully cultivated over a decade or two by sticking around too long and leaving an underwhelming last impression.

For David Beckham, conventional wisdom would suggest that it’s time to hang those spiffy pink lightweight cleats from the nearest hook after Saturday’s MLS Cup Final between his Los Angeles Galaxy and the Houston Dynamo. He’s 37 years old. He’s won the UEFA Champions League once and the Barclays Premier League six times with Manchester United. He’s won Spain’s La Liga with Real Madrid and he’s England’s only player to have scored in three World Cups while representing his laurelled national team more often than any other position player. He’s collected reams of individual awards.

Oh, and Queen Elizabeth made him an Officer in the Order of the British Empire at just 28.

He’s already announced that he won’t be returning for a seventh season with the Galaxy next year, setting off a flurry of speculative destinations or suggestions he might retire. And if he leads the Galaxy to its second consecutive title, he’ll keep alive his streak of winning a national championship in his final season with every team he’s ever been under contract with.

“What possible better ending could there be?” so will ring the old chorus, imploring him to call it quits. “Leave with a bang! Go out on top!” All the clichés.

But Beckham has a track record of defying convention. First, he left Manchester United, the club that raised and nurtured him from the age of 14, for Real in 2003. Typically, United’s homegrown products rarely depart the club voluntarily; granted, Beckham might not have either, as he was at odds with long-time manager Sir Alex Ferguson in his final season. They either stay forever or leave when they’re surplus to requirements. Beckham’s contemporaries Gary Neville, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs, who came up through United’s academy with him, have or will all finish out their careers there and never played anywhere else. Beckham left. And when he did, he went to Spain, a move even rarer for an Englishman back then than it is now. Historically, few English players have ventured abroad, and even fewer have succeeded. Their physical, hard-changing style is typically a bad fit in slower, more technical leagues like Spain’s. Beckham did both.

Three and a half years later, in January 2007, he signed with Major League Soccer while still at his peak at age 32 — yet another unusual move for a star of his caliber. Upon learning that Beckham would be leaving when his contract expired six months hence (soccer players can sign contracts with new clubs half a year before their current deal is up), then-Real coach Fabio Capello declared nobody else had wanted Beckham and that he wouldn’t be playing anymore. Not a month later Capello had to eat crow and brought him back to the fold. And Beckham would prove instrumental in Real’s league championship. So well did he play, in fact, that Real tried to buy his future rights back from the Galaxy (which hadn’t paid anything for the free agent) to ensure that he returned. The Galaxy rightfully declined.

That was always Beckham. When he was criticized or supposedly overrated or in over his head or past it, he proved all doubters wrong. As a technically gifted player with a mega-million branding apparatus off the field, an overlooked aspect of Beckham’s game has been his lust for labor and dedication to his craft. Save for his first three seasons in MLS, when he was often injured, Beckham looked uninterested and went on two loans to AC Milan, where he has consistently been one of the hardest-working players in the game throughout his career. So too once he re-committed to the Galaxy following the 2010 World Cup.

Over the last two seasons, Beckham has played through apparent if unpublicized ailments, has at times looked hobbled and even dazed towards the end of games — possibly because of chronic back injuries. Yet his Galaxy coach Bruce Arena insists he’s fully fit and scoffed at the suggestion that Beckham should be showing any signs of deteriorating.

And in truth, it’s hard to affix ageist labels to a player who turned in a very productive seven goals and nine assists over 24 regular-season games this year and led his team to a third MLS Cup Final appearance in four seasons. There’s no empirical evidence to suggest he’s over the hill.

Besides, Beckham will set his own terms.

He always has.