America back in love with Becks

Booed in July, the Englishman is back in favour as his Galaxy march on into the play-offs

Sometimes it is hard to disagree with Victoria Beckham's suggestion that her husband is Goldenballs. As if the century of England caps, the Champions League success with Manchester United, and the
La Liga triumph with Real Madrid were not enough, David Beckham is now on the brink of transforming the one part of his career which appeared to be a failure, his sojourn in the Los Angeles Galaxy midfield.

Off the pitch Beckham's Stateside experiment has been a qualified success. Major League Soccer is never going to threaten the NFL for TV time, or sponsors' dollars, but it has significantly raised its profile and continues to expand, as has the Beckham brand. Financially Beckham has largely paid his way through merchandising and other income. But on the pitch it had been an unmitigated disaster, with Los Angeles Galaxy, MLS Cup holders in 2005, failing even to make the end-of-season play-offs since Beckham's arrival in 2007. Last season they finished tied last in the 14-team competition.

It did not help that Beckham always seemed to be either injured or crossing the Atlantic to play for England. When he skipped town to play for Milan last year, and did not return until July after playing for England, then taking a rest, the natives turned ugly. Landon Donovan, the club's leading American, led a chorus of dressing-room criticism by questioning his commitment. Beckham was booed during his first match back, an exhibition against, ironically, Milan, even exchanging angry words with fans. Others hung banners reading "Go Home, Fraud", at the Galaxy's Carson City home. The frustration appeared to boil over as he was sent off for a reckless tackle 17 minutes into his first home league match against Seattle Sounders. He was booed off.

Three months on Beckham is loved again. Since returning he has started 11 of 13 possible matches, missing one through suspension, one through injury. Equally importantly, he has been playing well, winning over supporters and team-mates with his commitment just as he did in Madrid. The irony is that Donovan has been the catalyst for their mutual success. This week he won the club's Most Valuable Player and Golden Boot awards and Galaxy's former coach Frank Yallop, now steering San Jose Earthquakes, said: "Galaxy are well-organised and difficult to break down, but the difference is Landon. He makes a good team very good."

Beckham's first step was to cool the dispute with Donovan, which he did after their experienced coach, Bruce Arena, who led the US at the 2006 World Cup, brought them together. Their contrasting responses – "Landon apologised and I told him my view on things," said Beckham; "I believe we're getting to the bottom of things we needed to get to," said Donovan – suggested the peace was fragile but many a successful team has proved team-mates need only respect, not like each other. This seems the case as the pair have developed a formidable creative partnership which, with Arena tightening up a previously porous defence, enabled Galaxy to win the Western Conference. They are among the favourites for the play-offs which began in Seattle overnight and conclude with the MLS Cup on 22 November.

Beckham, who was pleased and relieved at his dressing-room reception, preached the mantra of teamwork and calm. "We don't want to get overconfident, that can bring things which we don't want to see. If we work hard like we have been, and keep that unity, we have a good chance."

Galaxy open their play-off campaign on Sunday with a derby match against Mexican-backed Chivas, against whom Beckham scored the only goal in a victory two months ago. Success in the two-leg tie is likely to result in a Conference final against Freddie Ljungberg's Seattle, who have been the other big story of the MLS season. A new team in the league, Seattle have broken the attendance record, averaging 33,000 in the regular season. Columbus Crew are the most likely final opposition, if Galaxy get there.

That is in the short term. Longer-term Beckham has an option to buy an MLS franchise. Seattle's success, and further expansion to Philadelphia, Vancouver and Portland by 2011, suggests a bright future for the league. By returning to favour in the US soccer community Beckham is again in position to take advantage.

MLS Cup: Key dates

Quarter-finals:

Seattle Sounders v Houston Dynamo 30 October & 8 November

Real Salt Lake v Columbus Crew 31 October & 6 November

Chicago Fire v New England Revolution 1 & 8 November

LA Galaxy v Chivas USA 1 & 9 November

Play-off contenders: Last eight

Columbus Crew

The MLS Cup holders finished top of the Eastern Conference. Coached by the former Everton winger Robert Warzycha.

Los Angeles Galaxy

Finished top of Western Conference. Midfielder Landon Donovan top scored with 12 goals.

Houston Dynamo

Co-owned by boxer Oscar De La Hoya, the Dynamo were MLS Cup winners in 2006 and 2007.

Chicago Fire

Former Fulham striker Brian McBride partners Mexico's Cuauhtemoc Blanco up front.

Seattle Sounders

Freddie Ljungberg has nine assists this season. Also field former Spurs goalkeeper Kasey Keller.

Chivas USA

Share the Home Depot Center with LA Galaxy. Coached by the former Everton winger Preki.

New England Revolution

Managed by former Liverpool defender Steve Nicol. Have been MLS Cup runners-up four times in the last seven seasons.

Real Salt Lake

Squeezed into the play-offs with a better goal difference than DC United and Colorado Rapids.

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