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Nor does the Galaxy feel as much pressure to use Beckham in every road game, even though his presence still causes modest attendance spikes. In exchange for approving the so-called Beckham Rule in '06 (allowing teams to sign a player whose salary isn't constrained by the leaguewide cap), MLS's owners emphasized how important it was for Beckham to appear at their stadiums. Now, says Arena, "if David needs a break, he gets a break." Translation: It's the soccer, stupid.
For his part Arena is back in the highest echelon of American coaching. The Bruce, as he's known, was the biggest personality in U.S. soccer before World Cup '06, having led the Yanks to the quarterfinals four years earlier, on top of his two MLS titles with D.C. United. But his reputation dimmed after a first-round exit in Germany and a short, unfulfilling stint coaching the New York Red Bulls. Since arriving in '08, Arena has overhauled the Galaxy roster, acquiring steady performers, from goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts and forwards Mike Magee and Chad Barrett to midfielder Juninho and defenders Todd Dunivant, Gregg Berhalter and Frankie Hejduk. Arena also made smart draft picks in defenders Gonzalez and A.J. DeLaGarza.
When this week's playoffs start, Arena will try to become the first coach to win three MLS titles. "I know it feels good for him because he went through a hard stretch where his ego took a big hit," says Donovan, who started playing for Arena in 2000 with the U.S., "but maybe that was the best thing to happen to him, to go through a difficult time. He has the same passion to win, but he's a little more at ease now, and I think that relaxes the team."
The 60-year-old Arena says he's "playing with house money" and could retire at any time, though he'd like to remain in a management role, perhaps continuing as L.A.'s general manager or taking on an executive position like the one Joe Torre has with Major League Baseball. It's also fair to say the famous Arena ego is alive and well. "Every team I've had, I've probably done a better job than anyone else could have done with that team," Arena says. "Unfortunately, I worked for people who didn't necessarily understand that, but that's O.K. They continue to prove that, and I continue to prove what I can do."
Will Beckham return to L.A. in 2012 after his Galaxy contract ends in December? Tottenham and fellow London-based Premier League club Queens Park Rangers have said they're interested in signing him, but the most intriguing suitor is Paris Saint-Germain, which was recently purchased by the Qatar Investment Authority. Paris would presumably be an ideal fit for his fashion-conscious wife, Victoria, but Beckham also says he and his family "love it" in Southern California. The Beckhams recently had their fourth child—and first daughter, Harper Seven—and their oldest son, Brooklyn, is playing on the Galaxy's under-13 academy team (wearing his dad's number 23). "We'll see at the end of the season" is all Beckham will say about his future.
AEG's Leiweke, however, is a lot more forceful. "I think David is loyal to us," he says. "Despite all the rumors and bulls--- out there about David going to France or the Premier League, David only leaves the Galaxy if David and we decide that. In fact, I believe David will be here again next year. People can make any offer they want. The loyalty he has to this club because of the way we have treated him and stood by him is going to be rewarded if we so choose to continue with David."
What happens on the field in the next month may influence that decision. If it wins the 2011 title, this Galaxy outfit has a chance to stake a claim as the finest team in MLS history, not least because the two clubs before it that finished with better records (the 1998 Galaxy and the 2005 San Jose Earthquakes) failed to win the MLS Cup final. No one knows the crapshoot nature of the playoffs better than Donovan, who won three titles (2001, '03, '05) by the age of 23 but has yet to add another. "My thinking was, Every other year I'd win a Cup," he says. "Now I realize how difficult it is. The league gets harder and harder."
Big names, healthy egos, high stakes. For a league that's still growing, MLS couldn't ask for much more.