David Beckham is having one of his best MLS season, but is unclear of his next… (Jae C. Hong / Associated…)
David Beckham's six years in Southern California have had all the elements of a great movie — and this being Hollywood, don't think someone's not already working on a screenplay.
But while it's been part farce and part tragedy, it's also been fully entertaining.
There were the early feuds and eventual rapprochement with teammate Landon Donovan and the Galaxy fans. There were the controversial loans to A.C. Milan and the unrequited desire to play for England in the World Cup and for Britain in the London Olympics.
There was success too, with Beckham leading the Galaxy to a Major Soccer League title last fall when he was Major League Soccer's comeback player of the year.
Yet the Beckham Experiment, as Sports Illustrated writer Grant Wahl called it, may be entering its final act. On Sunday the Galaxy meets San Jose in the first leg of the Western Conference semifinals, and if it doesn't beat the favored Earthquakes the match could prove to be Beckham's last in a Galaxy uniform at the Home Depot Center.
Or not. Even Beckham isn't sure what he'll do next.
"Who knows?" he said last week. "I'm going to enjoy being in the playoffs again this season and then we'll see … how this body feels."
The Galaxy and Beckham have been down this road before, of course. Last winter Beckham reportedly entertained offers from a number of European suitors before eventually deciding to stay, signing a two-year deal in January. But a lot has changed since then.
In many ways this has been Beckham's best MLS season, one that featured a career-high seven goals, nine assists and an all-star selection. But it's also been one of the most frustrating, with Beckham being passed over for the Olympic team and missing two games to disciplinary suspensions and four others with injuries.
More significant, however, is the fact the Galaxy has already begun envisioning a future without the 37-year-old who, along with Robbie Keane and Donovan, holds one of the team's three valuable designated player spots.
"At the end of this year we have decisions to make on our DPs," Galaxy Chief Executive Tim Leiweke said. "The DPs, they're going through changes in their lives now. We're starting to think through life without them. Whether it's at the end of this year or the end of next year, that's something we're thinking about. And we're going to be preparing for it."
The league limits teams to three designated players, whose salaries are only partially counted against the MLS salary cap. That exemption is also known as the Beckham Rule since MLS originally adopted it to give the Galaxy the payroll flexibility it needed to lure the former English national team captain to the U.S.
And Beckham has clearly been worth it. He's the biggest reason for the burgeoning popularity of the Galaxy and MLS, whose games are televised around the world. Leaguewide attendance topped 6 million for the first time this season, and since Beckham arrived the league has grown from 12 to 19 franchises while expansion fees have more than quadrupled, to a reported $50 million.
Now the Galaxy says it needs to open up one of its three DP spots. Keane, 32, the team's leading scorer, isn't an option. Not only is he playing brilliantly, but he has a contract that will keep him with the team for at least two more seasons.
Donovan, 30, has struggled with injuries this season while openly discussing his desire for a break to deal with physical and mental exhaustion. But Donovan, the team captain, has a year left on his contract and with the World Cup just two summers away he's likely to stay put as well.
That leaves Beckham, who also has a year left on his contract. But it's unclear whether that contract binds him to the pitch or simply to the team, which has always viewed him as more of a partner than a player. Plus Beckham's first deal with the Galaxy included an option to buy an MLS franchise, an option he has said he plans to exercise when he retires.
That's a transition Leiweke and the Galaxy could help Beckham start this winter.
Asked again Saturday if the playoff game with San Jose could be his last home match in a Galaxy uniform Beckham again demurred.
"It might not be. We'll have to wait and see," he repeated. "I will decide whether I continue to play not just solely because of injuries and things like that. Sometimes that's an excuse.
"So for me [retirement] will be when I feel like I don't want to play anymore."