Beckham set for perfect swansong

Many, many characteristics distance David Beckham from the rank and file. Out of all of those traits, one quality above all others continues to protect his carefully cultivated image and separate him from his peers.

He always knows how and when to take the next step in his career.

Beckham usually departs with a championship in hand and a fresh challenge to conquer. He left Manchester United after winning his sixth Premier League title and went on to prove his mettle on the continent with Real Madrid. He quit Madrid after his first La Liga triumph to bolster the profile of soccer in America and lend his credibility to a fledgling league in need of his cachet.

With his work in Southern California completed, Beckham will conclude his Galaxy career after the showpiece final at the Home Depot Center on Dec. 1. Once again, his timing appears impeccable with a second title potentially in hand and a Galaxy side likely poised for significant changes during the offseason.

Beckham may have moved toward the exit door first, but he isn’t the only Galaxy player with an uncertain future. Landon Donovan continues to hint that he may consider a break in some form or another during the winter. Omar Gonzalez is out of contract at the end of the season and may ponder a move overseas to boost his international fortunes. Juninho is only on loan from Sao Paulo and the Galaxy were somewhat fortunate to procure his services for a third straight season. Robbie Keane will likely contemplate another loan move back to the Premier League, though he is expected to return next season. Investor/operators Anschutz Entertainment Group are up for sale.

Galaxy executives face a significant task to retain all of those players during this close season and sort through an ownership transfer that may or may not occur over the next few months. Even if all of those situations end with an acceptable resolution, the Galaxy must still grapple with the end of a personality-laden era driven by one of the most marketable names in sport.

Replacing Beckham is an impossible proposition. Only Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo approach Beckham’s level of stardom. Neither player is leaving Spain for southern California at this point of his career. It might not prove particularly difficult to acquire a player more influential on the field than the 37-year-old Beckham, but the former England captain remains an irreplaceable figure in terms of maintaining the identity of the club across the country and throughout the world.

If the Galaxy continues down the path it currently follows, then another notable star will take Beckham’s place. There will be no shortage of candidates to fill the void. Expect a host of familiar names – established performers such as Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard – to pop up in the tabloids in conjunction with a move to the Galaxy. Other clubs in other countries will offer more money to the preferred candidates, but the lure of following Beckham and living in Southern California will undoubtedly appeal.

Beckham’s departure and Donovan’s potential exit could also set the stage for a shift in philosophy for the free-spending Galaxy. Although the club is tied into a lucrative local television deal that ensures a certain caliber of player will lead the squad, it could also reassess whether shelling out approximately $9 million in guaranteed compensation on three players (minus the portion of each salary covered by MLS) represents good business in the post-Beckham epoch.

Other ways exist to build a competitive team in MLS. Instead of replacing Beckham (and potentially Donovan) by splashing the cash, the Galaxy could alter course and plump for two more moderately priced professionals from overseas like most MLS teams do. The tempered approach might cater to the cohesiveness of a side reliant upon its collective strength and sidestep the difficulty of selecting the right players, but it would change the calculus significantly for a team used to relying on Beckham, Donovan or Keane (or Mike Magee in the playoffs) to apply the necessary touch of class or produce something from nothing.

Those philosophical concerns matter little to Beckham at this point. He cemented his massive MLS legacy – pockmarked by dalliances and foibles, though it is – long ago. He leaked his exit two weeks ahead of his final match to create the necessary amount of buzz. He secured his permanent ties to the league by securing a sweetheart clause to purchase a franchise for a reported $25 million at some point in the future.

No one knows quite yet when that day or Beckham’s next move will arrive. And no one will know until he floats a few potential destinations to keep his name on the back pages and ultimately settles on his next port of call. But one thing is already certain: Beckham’s decision to leave the Galaxy now reinforces his unique ability to script a departure worthy of a player of his stature.