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Beckham, Galaxy both shining anew

November 13, 2009|Grahame L. Jones

David Beckham was ready to leave. Cruz Beckham was not.

The scene was the Galaxy locker room in the aftermath of last weekend's Major League Soccer playoff victory over Chivas USA, and 4-year-old Cruz was at the chalkboard, drawing cartoon characters.

"Come on, Cruz, it's time to go," Beckham said. "Come on, it's bedtime."

Cruz ignored him and kept drawing. Eventually, Beckham came over and, taking the marker from his son, squiggled a line of hair on the cartoon face and added a top hat for good measure.

Then the Galaxy midfielder scooped up his protesting youngster and carried him off under his arm -- just as, some might say, he has carried the Galaxy in the latter half of 2009.

Tonight, Los Angeles plays the Houston Dynamo at 8:25 at the Home Depot Center in a Western Conference final that pits a pair of teams that have each won two MLS championships. One of them will advance to the Nov. 22 MLS Cup final in Seattle.

How has the Galaxy, which failed to reach the playoffs in each of the last three seasons, turned it around in 2009? Was it Coach Bruce Arena's extensive housecleaning or was it Beckham's suddenly revamped play in his third season with the Galaxy?

"It was probably a mixture," Beckham said. "I've been happy with my performances and been happy with the team's performances, but also having Bruce and his knowledge of this league and this country, it all helped us."

Forward Landon Donovan, the Galaxy's leading scorer, said another reason for the team's revival was unequivocal.

"To be honest, the person who's made it work is David," Donovan said. "You guys [the media] see that his attitude and the way he's been playing is the David we know, but off the field he's also been great. He's done a lot of things throughout the year to show that he wants to be here. He took the guys to dinner a couple of weeks ago to celebrate making the playoffs. He's just been fantastic."

Since returning to Los Angeles in July after his loan to AC Milan, Beckham, 34, has looked an entirely different player. He is hungry, he is motivated, he is playing at a higher level than he did in either of his first two abortive seasons in MLS.

Part of that is his motivation to make England's squad for the 2010 World Cup, but as big a reason for his newfound enthusiasm is that he is surrounded by better players on the Galaxy.

When Arena took over as coach in August 2008, he picked up the Galaxy like a rug and shook out all the dirt and debris or, to put it in his own words, gave the team "a fresh coat of paint."

He brought in 16 new players, a mixture of promising youngsters such as Omar Gonzalez, who on Thursday was named MLS rookie of the year, and veterans such as Gregg Berhalter, Eddie Lewis, Tony Sanneh, Donovan Ricketts and Todd Dunivant.

"Bruce came in and changed the culture of this franchise," said veteran midfielder Chris Klein. "I'd like to say he changed it back to what it was" in the days when the Galaxy was the MLS flagship.

The players Arena brought on board, Klein said, were "proven guys who, with someone like David, didn't stand around in awe of him but made him feel part of the team but also let him do his thing."

Beckham responded well to the changes.

"It's a better team, it's more enjoyable for him to play here now," Arena said. "He played with a number of players here over the last couple of years that were fringe MLS players. That had to be, in my opinion, pretty awkward for him."

The new-look Galaxy made Beckham more comfortable on the field.

"I've got players around me who are not afraid to go and do what they can do and show their ability instead of just trying to give me the ball or give Landon the ball," he said. "I'm enjoying myself at the moment. It's been a good season."

Donovan concurred.

"Last year, if a guy had the ball on the field and David was two yards away, they'd give it to him," he said. "Now guys make their own decisions. They play the game to play the game. I think he respects that now because he can just be a part of the team and do what he's good at.

"I think he's proud to be here now. I really do. I think he wants to make this work. That makes a big difference."

Arena believes Beckham now feels like a Galaxy player rather than just a highly paid mercenary.

"Definitely," he said. "He's done a great job and he's done more of the things off the field for the organization as well. He's a real part of the team in the locker room and he's well respected."

The numbers don't reveal much. In 1,057 minutes over 13 regular-season and playoff games for the Galaxy in 2009, Beckham contributed two goals and assisted on three others.

Before he arrived back in town, the Galaxy went 5-3-9. After he rejoined the team, it went 8-3-4, including the playoff series victory over Chivas.

A victory over Houston tonight and another on Nov. 22 over either the Chicago Fire or Real Salt Lake would make Beckham an MLS champion, something undreamed of only a year ago.

Arena said that for all the turmoil of the Galaxy's "Beckham era," the player himself remains simple to figure out.

"There's the David Beckham that's known around the world, but when you really break it down, the guy loves to step between the lines and play," Arena said. "He loves playing soccer.

"That's the most amazing part of the whole thing. He's occupied with a lot of other stuff away from the field and has a bunch of different commitments, but, boy, when he gets on the field he loves it. He absolutely loves playing this game."

--

grahame.jones@latimes.com

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