How will Galaxy cope without Becks?

When David Beckham first joined the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2007, American soccer went crazy. The buzz didn’t last long.

Some expectations were filled: Beckham delivered sell-out crowds, merchandise revenue and international press. Others fell short. His first two seasons were filled with disappointments; Beckham struggled with injuries; the team missed the playoffs for two years; some diehard supporters booed him.

Worst of all, when Beckham took the captaincy from Landon Donovan, their relationship immediately – and very publicly – soured. Donovan took some swipes at Beckham’s commitment to the club. This was supposed to be a championship caliber duo – and yet their relationship was in tatters.

It was a disastrous start to the “Beckham Era.”

Five and a half years later, after the Galaxy had just won their second consecutive MLS Cup, Galaxy fans cheered Beckham with a chant: “One more year.” It was a far cry from the “Go home fraud” sign held by the same fans a few years earlier. As Beckham raised the trophy, confetti flew, fireworks exploded and the applause in the stadium was deafening. And Donovan? He was next to him.

How did this odd couple get there?

Beckham’s time in Southern California began to turn around midway through the 2008 season when coach Bruce Arena took over. Arena repaired the broken relationship between Beckham and Donovan, as a first step towards taking control of the floundering club. Arena made it clear that he ran the team – not either Donovan or Beckham – and the two stars were subsequently able to coexist peacefully.

The Galaxy gradually found success, making the MLS Cup final in Beckham’s third season and winning the Supporters’ Shield in the fourth. In 2011, in the final year of his contract, Beckham finally won the MLS Cup with Los Angeles.

Beckham would repeat the feat in 2012 – but not before announcing that he would be leaving Los Angeles to pursue another opportunity. As a result, his departure raised many questions for the upcoming 2013 season.

How will LA replace his incredible passes – watching him send the ball 40 yards down the pitch and drop it right into the path of his intended target will never get old – or his unquestioned leadership?

“The things he did were unparalleled to any other guy in this league. His crosses, his work rate on the field and his leadership on the field will definitely be missed,” LA’s Mike Magee said.

Beckham was a key component in the back-to-back championships. He played through injuries in both seasons – first, a hamstring injury in 2011, and then back spasms throughout much of 2012 – and showed he was willing to give everything for the club.

The question is: with Beckham now at Paris St. Germain, and Donovan on his soccer sabbatical – at the moment, he is relaxing in Cambodia – who will step up and lead this club?

It may start with newly appointed captain Robbie Keane. Arena announced on Wednesday night that the Irish international would be the Galaxy captain for the 2013 season. While some may question the move, the fact is Donovan doesn’t need the armband to lead.

“At the end of the day, if Landon comes back and he’s not officially the captain, he’s still going to be a leader, and he’s still going to be the heart and soul of this team like he’s been for the last half decade,” Galaxy defender Todd Dunivant says.

Arena’s move is typically sly: Keane and Donovan will give the team two leaders to look to, and taking the armband from the American will take some pressure off a man who could use a quiet return to the field.

What remains to be seen is who will replace Beckham’s talent and work rate. While AEG President and CEO Tim Leiweke said on Wednesday “the best one is coming,” whoever the next Designated Player is, he won’t show up until the summer. In the meantime, who will step up?

Centerback Omar Gonzalez enters his fifth season with LA in 2013, and will continue in his role as the glue holding together the Galaxy defense. The addition of veteran goalkeeper Carlo Cudicini, who has already shown leadership in preseason, will allow LA to have a strong spine of players to guide the club in the upcoming season. Their starting lineup this season won’t differ much from last year. Aside from Cudicini, Colin Clark and a healthy Leonardo, there are few changes.

Yet when the Galaxy begins the 2013 season, they will set out to do what no other team has done before: win three consecutive MLS Cup championships. They will do so without their once-maligned and aloof star, but eventual leader.

This team is ready to show the rest of the league that they don’t need Beckham to succeed.