David Beckham is back — a little longer of hair and a little shorter of breath, but back nonetheless.
The Galaxy midfielder, sidelined for almost six months after surgery in March to repair a torn left Achilles' tendon suffered while playing on loan for AC Milan in Italy, has been taken off the disabled list and said Thursday that he is ready and eager to return to the fray.
Whether that return will come Saturday night when the Galaxy plays host to the Columbus Crew in Carson remains up in the air, sort of like the wandering Englishman's latest hairstyle.
"I feel remarkably good," Beckham, 35, said after skipping the team's morning training session at the Home Depot Center to do some work in the gym. "I'm ready."
The call, though, will not be Beckham's alone. It is mostly up to Galaxy Coach Bruce Arena, and Arena is being ultra-cautious.
"He is a guy who likes to defy the odds," Arena said. "When you say he can't do something, then you get yourself in a lot of trouble. If it were up to Beckham, he'd have been playing three weeks ago."
The probability, though, is that Beckham will return against D.C. United on Sept. 18 rather than against Columbus this week.
"I think he's ahead of schedule," Arena said. "Our original goal was to get him back on the field Oct. 1.
"That kind of injury is a difficult injury in a sport like soccer, with the kind of agility and power and explosiveness and endurance you need over 90 minutes. We just want to make sure he's right when he comes back."
Still, Beckham remains hopeful about playing Saturday.
"I think I could possibly be on the bench," he said. "Fingers crossed, I'll be on the bench. I think I could play some part of the game. Obviously, not having played for six months, it has to be a careful few minutes at a time. If I can play for 10, 15, 20 minutes, hopefully I can do that."
Beckham has not played one minute in Major League Soccer this season — and, remarkably, only 41 games since joining the league in 2007 — the injury having occurred during the MLS preseason while he was with Milan.
The Galaxy, however, has managed to get by without its highest-profile and highest-paid player. The team is 13-5-5 and in first place in the West going into Saturday's game, the same record as Columbus, which is in first place in the East.
Nor has the drop-off at the gate been precipitous without Beckham. For the six regular-season home games when Beckham was in the lineup in 2009, the Galaxy averaged 22,101 fans. With Beckham absent this season, the team has averaged 20,298 in 10 home games.
But Beckham's return is not as much about filling more plastic seats as it is about trying to reverse a bleak spell that has seen the Galaxy win only three times in 12 games in all competitions over the last two months.
"Certainly, when you bring a player of his quality onto the field, it helps the confidence of others," Arena said.
"First off, it's just nice to have him back in training," forward Landon Donovan said. "He makes our team better in training, in the locker room every day, and eventually when he gets on the field.
"It still might be a little early on Saturday, but if he gets a chance I think he'll be fine. He played 45 minutes yesterday [in a scrimmage] and he got through it fine."
"Obviously, the first 10 minutes were a bit of a blow for me, the reality of playing in a game," he said. "But I got a second wind around 25 minutes. Physically, I'm still trying to get up to match fitness, but I'll only get that by playing in games. Strength-wise, I've not got 100% strength in that left leg, but I'm working on it and it's getting stronger each day."
Meanwhile, Beckham is unlikely to be going back to AC Milan or anywhere else in 2011, the final year of his MLS contract.
"We haven't discussed that," Arena said. "We'd love to go with him from start to finish next year."