Beckham’s impact felt in twilight of MLS career

It was estimated by the publication France Football in February that David Beckham earned roughly $41.5 million in 2011 through endorsements, appearances and his annual Major League Soccer contract.

Married to a Spice Girl and as a recognizable superstar playing the planet’s most popular sport, Beckham has been rewarded hundreds of times over during a career that has taken him to Old Trafford, Estadio Santiago Bernabéu and San Siro.

It has also taken him to the Home Depot Center, where he’ll dress for the final time as a member of the Los Angeles Galaxy when he, attacking midfielder Landon Donovan and head coach Bruce Arena host the Houston Dynamo in the MLS Cup on Dec. 1.

Beckham announced at a Tuesday news conference that he would be moving on from the Galaxy and MLS for a playing opportunity elsewhere — though he would not reveal the possibilities of where he may land.

As one of the world’s most successful athletes on and off the field, any compensation gained will be negligible compared to the financial security and sports empire he’s already built.

This latest phase of Beckham’s playing career is clearly about the desire to build on his own legacy, to catalyze his competitive drive, and to continue to challenge himself and his teammates to win Cups and titles at high levels of competition.

“I still feel that I have something left in me as a player,” Beckham said. “I still feel like I have one more challenge in me as a player. Even at 37 years old, I feel like I till can play at a high level.”

While boasting of “exciting opportunities on the table”, Beckham wouldn’t elucidate on any on-pitch future plans, other than he will not be retiring from his playing career, nor will he be returning to the Galaxy or to MLS. He intimated that the decision of where he’ll play will come around the turn of the New Year.

Cynicism has existed, but has mostly been muted over his role with the Galaxy in striving to build support and recognition of soccer in the United States. It’s cynicism which appeared warranted after he started in only 50 games over his first four years with the Galaxy due to ankle and achilles’ injuries and two loan spells with AC Milan. But it is clear that one game from the conclusion of his affiliation with MLS Beckham has made a starkly positive impact on the top American domestic league.

“In some ways it’s hard to measure. In other ways, it’s very easy to measure,” Donovan said while trying to grasp the comprehensive impact that Beckham has made in the US.

“We went up to Seattle on Sunday and played in front of 45,000 people, and that didn’t happen before he got here. In those ways, it’s easy to measure. I think long term, it’s probably harder to measure just how important.

“But there’s no doubt that what he’s done here has been an overwhelming success, even with the first few years that weren’t great on the soccer side. As a whole, it’s been tremendous for our sport in this country.”

Beckham was also one to acknowledge that there were extreme expectations of him in his American career. He added that following the initial tenuous relationship between him and those looking for a more firm commitment to the Galaxy, he has been able to pinpoint his own contribution to the health and growth of Major League Soccer, which has welcomed seven new clubs into the league since Beckham’s announcement in early 2007. Today, 13 of 19 MLS franchises now play in soccer-specific stadiums.

“When I first came here, I think people also expected me to score 10 goals every game,” Beckham said. “That was never going to happen. Whatever team that I’ve played with in my career, and whatever place, wherever I’ve been, there’s always been expectations. Whether I’ve reached those expectations in peoples’ eyes, that’s for other people to decide what my impact was.

“But what I have seen form myself firsthand, I’ve seen the new franchises that have come into this league. I’ve seen the attendances grow in this league to the point of where they’re all competing … with baseball and basketball. I’ve seen the quality of players that have come into this league. And now, we’ve seen huge TV deals that have been signed.

“We’ve also seen the interest and the fact that this league is taken very seriously in Europe and in different parts of the world now. So, yes, I’ve seen that firsthand, and I’m very proud to have been part of that.”

After a pair of bleak seasons in which he struggled to maintain his place in the lineup, he has been a key part in building a championship-caliber team at the Home Depot Center since Arena’s arrival in August 2008. From his first winning season in 2009, the Galaxy have claimed three divisional titles, two appearances in the league championship game and the 2011 MLS Cup.

The success he has sustained — and leaves the franchise with — was part of the motivating factor in leaving MLS.

“I felt that I came to the decision solely because I’d felt I’d achieved everything that I’d wanted to achieve with the Galaxy — on the field and off the field,” Beckham said. “But on the field, to have been able to have played in, by the time next Saturday comes around, three finals in six years, to have been able to lift the championship last year in our own stadium, I felt that I’d achieved everything I’d wanted to. Almost … because I want to win another championship before I go.”

Beckham had shared his decision with Arena and AEG president Tim Lieweke several weeks before the report leaked earlier this week and was formally announced to his teammates on Tuesday morning. According to the Galaxy coach, it does not at all interfere with the team’s MLS Cup preparation — sentiments echoed by Donovan, who said that the club is “very used to having a lot of attention on it.”

“I think it’s great that it brings closure to David’s tenure to the Galaxy and MLS, so we all are on the same page and are headed in a positive direction for the cup and in the future,” Arena said.

“David’s 37 years old. He can’t play forever. He’s done more in MLS and for the Galaxy than any of us ever would have imagined.”

There’s still more to assess of Beckham’s role in MLS as part of the fixed-price club ownership option presented to him as a stipulation in the five-year, $32.5 million contract he signed in 2007. But he ruled out a return in a managerial or coaching capacity on Tuesday.

“My guess is David’s not going to be sitting behind the desk 12 hours a day in a management capacity,” Arena joked. “I think he’ll be a little bit apart and come in when needed and do that. But I think his experience, his name, his presence is going to do wonders for whichever club he ends up being a part of.”

Though aged and accomplished, Beckham is still heavily driven by his own competitive outlets.

“I always want to win any game, whether it’s a game with my kids in the backyard, or whether it’s the MLS Cup Final,” he said. “I was actually quite emotional after the game in Seattle, because obviously it was the last game in a different stadium in my career here with the Galaxy. So it was quite emotional the other night. But I’ve got a feeling it’s going to be even more so next Saturday, because it’s been my home for the last six years.

“I’ve had some amazing times — one or two difficult times — but some amazing memories here in this stadium and with this team. To be able to finish my career as a Galaxy player in my own stadium in a Cup Final is special enough. Hopefully, to win it would finish everything off for me.”

When asked about what it meant to have a foreigner help make such a large impact on American soccer, and that it wasn’t engineered by his own achievements or of those by anyone born in the United States, Donovan hesitated before answering.

“That’s an interesting question. I don’t have any ego about that,” Donovan said. “I think most of us and most of you all here, we just want to see it grow. Whether it’s an Englishman or an American or an Irishmen or a Brazilian or a Scandinavian or whatever, I think we’re all just happy to see it grow.

“The reality is that there’s probably one or two people in the world who could have made it grow the way he did, and we’re very fortunate to have had him.”