Becks gets his groove back as brightest star in Galaxy
'Comeback' king can bow out with MLS glory tomorrow, writes Guy Adams in Los Angeles
The other day, at around 8.30am, David Beckham was driving his children to breakfast at a restaurant near their Los Angeles home. Having stopped at a junction, he glanced to his right, and spotted an elderly gentleman on the pavement. It was Al Pacino, walking his dog.
"The whole thing was just surreal," recalled Beckham this week. "We've had a pretty normal life out here, but there have been plenty of moments like that, when living in California has really been something special."
The encounter with a famous neighbourhood dog-walker was, he added, one of many occasions during their five years in the first city of showbusiness when the expatriate Beckham clan has "sat back, as a family, and realised how lucky we all are".
So far so cute. But in the past, sports writers would be almost duty bound to respond to that anecdote with an observation: that for all the glee with which he has embraced Hollywood culture while away from the pitch, David Beckham's time in the USA has, in sporting terms, been a complete bust.
That was the received wisdom three years ago, when Beckham's first full season at LA Galaxy ended with the team finishing a dismal sixth, of nine clubs, in Major League Soccer's western division, parting company with its manager Ruud Gullit in the process.
It was also the received wisdom as recently as this time last year, when an injury-ravaged Beckham had taken the field for the Galaxy just 18 times in the previous 24 months, a period in which his team-mates had played almost 70 games.
But something odd has happened in this twilight stage of David Beckham's spell in Los Angeles. Something as unlikely, but as strangely thrilling, as any of those impossible free-kicks he would unwind during the glory days when he was the world's most valuable footballer.
It can be summed up in five words: Beckham got his groove back.
In defiance of the cynics who called his American adventure an expensive PR stunt, and for all the choruses of doubt that his 36-year-old frame would allow him to return to anything like his best, England's former captain has somehow managed to spend 2011 playing some of the most intelligent, and effective, football of his life.
You can see evidence of Beckham's renaissance in the fact that the current MLS campaign has seen him play 26 times for the Galaxy, more than any previous season. Or in the appearance of his name in second place in the League's table of goal-providers kept by statistics-obsessed US fans, with 15 "assists".
You can also see it in the sunnynature of his relationship with team-mate Landon Donovan, with whom he was once virtually on non-speaking terms. Today, they are the nation's most dangerous midfield pairing. And Donovan has taken to wearing Beckham's No 23 tracksuit in warm-ups, hoping his magic "rubs off on me".
Beckham's return to form was formally recognised this week, when he won the title of "Comeback Player of the Year" at the MLS end-of-year awards. He had helped Los Angeles to a season when they have topped the League, with 19 wins and 10 draws from their 34 regular-season games, and an unbeaten record at home.
If all goes according to plan, the Beckham comeback will also be in evidence tomorrow night, when the Galaxy take on Houston Dynamo in the MLS Cup, the biggest game in the US "soccer" calendar. The long sold-out fixture, the final of the League's post-season play-offs, is taking place at LA's home ground, the Home Depot Center.
The Beckham on show, playing in the centre of midfield alongside Brazil's Juninho, in a 4-4-2 formation which also features Donovan on the right wing and the Republic of Ireland's Robbie Keane at centre forward, is a player who has worked out how to get the best out of his creaking frame.
He was never blessed with blistering pace but he is still passing the ball like a dream, and remains one of the world's most dangerous dead-ball specialists. In the quarter-final of the play-offs, against the New York Red Bulls, a perfectly-weighted Beckham corner produced LA's crucial equaliser.
Beckham has also been resourceful and effective in open play. Later in the same game, his ability to frustrate defenders saw him on the receiving end of the foul which led the match-winning penalty. And in the semi-final against Real Salt Lake, Beckham's curling cross led to the first of his team's three goals.
That he is now playing with commendable passion was obvious from that fixture, when he was by some distance the most animated man on the field. It is perhaps also evident from Beckham's collection of yellow cards – with 10, he's received more than any other MLS player this season.
Beckham dearly wants Galaxy to win what will be their first MLS title since he swaggered into town. Perhaps that will be his legacy. For there is every-likelihood that tomorrow's game will be his farewell.
The $32.5m five-year contract he signed with such fanfare in 2006 reaches completion tomorrow night. Although Galaxy have offered him a one- year extension, apparently on the same salary, he is being courted by a string of foreign clubs, most notably Paris Saint-Germain, now owned by Qataris with open chequebooks.
Galaxy are not in a position to compete financially with the French club's offer. Their only leverage in negotiations is the prospect of La Famille Beckham being able to spend another year in a city they clearly adore.
At a press conference on Thursday night, Beckham told reporters that he won't make a decision on his contract until after the MLS final. "My No 1 priority is always my family. We love living here, but I will make up my mind based on how I feel physically."
Asked how long he wants to carry on, he added: "I'm 36 years old, but I still love the game like I did when I was 21."
This Sunday, the "soccer" fans of Los Angeles will be hoping he succeeds in rolling back the years.
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