WASHINGTON (AP) – Two weeks from now, the Los Angeles Galaxy's grand Beckham Experiment will be over.
On Monday night, the Galaxy announced that the much-laurelled English midfielder won't be returning to the team next year. The December 1 MLS Cup final will be his last competitive game for Los Angeles.
"I've had an incredibly special time playing for the L.A. Galaxy, however, I wanted to experience one last challenge before the end of my playing career," Beckham, 37, said in a statement. "I don't see this as the end of my relationship with the league as my ambition is to be part of the ownership structure in the future." (Beckham's original contract with the league had a clause allowing him to purchase an MLS franchise following his retirement, although the New York and Los Angeles markets are excluded.)
Beckham arrived in America after a landmark 2007 move from Real Madrid. A special dispensation program, the Designated Player, was invented to accommodate his hefty salary, more than twice that of an entire team's salary cap at the time. Expectations were commensurate with his earnings.
But early returns on the league's and Galaxy's considerable investment disappointed. Beckham played just five games in his first season because of injury. He was present but seemingly lax at times in 2008. He went on loan to AC Milan during the offseason, ostensibly to stay in shape and in the picture for England's World Cup 2010 squad - Beckham was previously its captain and is its all-time appearance leader - but remained in Milan once the 2009 MLS season started. He didn't return until July, rightly causing many to question where his priorities lay. During the 2009-10 offseason, he again went to Milan and tore an Achilles tendon which caused him to miss the World Cup and, to the fury of Galaxy fans, the bulk of the 2010 season.
The price tag originally affixed to Beckham didn't much help him. It was announced upon his signing that he would earn $250 million over five seasons. It later turned out the number included speculative endorsement income and that his real salary would be $6.5 million per season. But it still made for the richest contract in league history.
Beckham made amends in 2011, leading the Galaxy to the MLS Cup title and helped bring them back there in 2012, showing considerably more interest in his team's fortunes. On Dec. 1, the Galaxy will make its third MLS Cup Final appearance in Beckham's six years, having previously lost the 2009 final on penalties.
In spite of his chronic truancy in early years, Beckham posted 18 goals and 48 assists in 114 regular season and playoff games over six years, a solid yield. Off the field, his signing was an unbridled success. The league's growth accelerated sharply over the last six seasons. And while it's hard to correlate that entirely to Beckham's presence, several marquee European names who helped bring further credibility, such as Thierry Henry and Robbie Keane, cited Beckham's opting for MLS as a factor in their decision to follow him.
Since 2007, seven new franchises have been added, all of them wildly successful additions to a league sputtering as recently as 2001, when two teams were contracted. At long last, attendance is on the rise, creeping towards 19,000 per game in 2012, more than the NBA and NHL in their most recent completed seasons. Several teams have built state-of-the-art soccer-specific stadiums. And MLS is making inroads in its television presence, being carried nationally by NBC and ESPN as well as every local market.
"Seldom does an athlete redefine a sport and David not only took our franchise to another level but he took our sport to another level," said Tim Leiweke, president of AEG, which owns the Galaxy.
Yet the timing of his departure announcement is odd. The season isn't yet over. And following much speculation about a possible move to Paris Saint-Germain when his initial MLS contract expired last winter, Beckham re-upped with MLS on a two-year contract paying him a guaranteed salary of $4 million per year.
Much speculation on where he goes next will be unloosed. A trade within MLS seems unlikely, as it wouldn't be much of a "challenge" and Beckham spoke of remaining in the league only in an ownership role. A move to Europe seems doubtful too, as Beckham's body is visibly breaking down and increased intensity would only accelerate that. Rumors are widespread of him joining the Australian A-League, which is opting for a strategy not unlike MLS's a few years ago, bringing on elite names like Alessandro del Piero and Emile Heskey. Beckham's arrival could provide the same watershed moment as it did to MLS.
A cynic could say it could also bring Brand Beckham to yet another continent. But Beckham's body of work as a dogged competitor who has consistently exceeded expectations and muted calls of being overrated, merits some slack in that department.
The place Beckham is going next is unclear. His tight web of handlers will cradle this information with the utmost care.
The place he was, he left in a much better state than he found it. Ultimately, he came good on the promise; lived up to all the hoopla and hype.
"When David Beckham signed with the L.A. Galaxy in 2007, he set out to help grow MLS and the sport of soccer in North America," MLS Commissioner Don Garber said. "There is no doubt that MLS is far more popular and important here and abroad than it was when he arrived. David has achieved great things on and off the field during his time with the Galaxy, and he will always be an important part of our history."