On a sun-drenched day in Southern California, it's hard to imagine a more peaceful vibe than the one at The Home Depot Center. A dog frolics on the grass in front of the south goal. The scent of honeysuckle fills the air. Landon Donovan leans back in a bleacher seat and shares a wish he wouldn't have dreamed of three years ago: that Los Angeles Galaxy teammate David Beckham extend his expiring contract and turn down overseas suitors (Paris! London!) to return to MLS next year. "Honestly, if you'd asked me going into the season I'd have said, 'I don't know,'" Donovan says, "but after seeing the way he's played, I hope he stays."
Three seasons ago Donovan caused an uproar by criticizing Beckham's commitment (SI, July 6, 2009), but they've since made their peace. After completing the third-best season in the league's 16-year history, Los Angeles (19 wins, five losses, 10 ties) starts its MLS Cup playoff run this Sunday with the win-or-bust goal of raising the trophy in its own stadium after the Cup final on Nov. 20. Though the Galaxy doesn't obliterate opponents—L.A.'s season goal differential is plus-20, far below the MLS record of plus-41 set by the team in 1998—it has a knack for ruthlessly killing off one-goal victories. "They are a machine—and not like a Ferrari but like a Ford truck," says former G.M. Alexi Lalas. "They can get down and dirty, but they can also look classic and powerful in the way they go about their business."
Part of that is due to the defensive discipline instilled by coach Bruce Arena and embodied in towering 23-year-old Defender of the Year candidate Omar Gonzalez. But much credit also goes to Donovan and Beckham, both top contenders for league MVP. Donovan, despite playing most of the season as a flank midfielder rather than in his typical striker role, scored 12 goals (tied for fifth in MLS) and at 29 is still regarded by most coaches as the league's best player. He says he felt "miserable" as MLS's top scorer in '08 because the Galaxy failed to make the playoffs, but he's comfortable in his new role as a setup man on a dominant team. "Some days I won't even get in front of the goal the whole game, but it'll help us win," he says. "That's been a learning process, but I enjoy it a lot more."
As for Beckham, now 36, he's had his finest season since joining MLS in 2007, finishing second in the league with 15 assists. Healthy all year after suffering a torn left Achilles in '10 and freed of his duties with the England national team, Beckham has made the Galaxy his top priority—and has played like it. He remains world-class in dead-ball situations, and from his deep-lying spot in the central midfield he can feather passes onto a teammate's foot from 40 yards away. "In our league his ability to hold the ball in that position and pass makes him unique," says Arena. "He's right in the middle of things. In every game, he touches the ball the most of any player." The quality survives: Beckham is a lock to make MLS's Best XI for the first time.
Perhaps most important, Beckham and Donovan have discovered a way not only to coexist but also to complement each other. Their vision and grasp of the game have always stood out from their teammates', and over the past three seasons, as L.A. has risen to the top, the two have gradually reached an understanding. "Landon and David figured out they didn't have to be best friends," says Tim Leiweke, the hard-driving president of AEG, which owns the Galaxy. "When they get on the pitch, their chemistry is good right now." Good enough, in fact, that L.A. has enjoyed a historic season despite having no go-to striker until the team signed Irish star Robbie Keane from Tottenham Hotspur in August. (Keane says he hopes to be recovered from an adductor strain by the second game of the playoffs.)
Of course, one big difference between U.S. and European soccer is that the former has playoffs: In MLS the best team can still fall short when it matters most. Such was the case with L.A. in 2010. "It's always important to stamp your authority on a season, and I think we've done that in the last few years, especially this year," Beckham says. "But it's not over yet. With the playoffs you can end up winning the Supporters' Shield [for best regular-season record] and then go out in the first round. We have to stay focused." Just as Beckham needed to win an important trophy with Real Madrid (the '06--07 league title) to validate his four years in Spain, the same could be said for his time in MLS.
The cold truth: If this ends up being Beckham's last season with the Galaxy, what happens in the next month will seal his on-field legacy in America.
The man who brought Beckham to America smiles. Sitting in his office overlooking the AEG-owned Staples Center and its $2.5 billion L.A. Live entertainment district, Leiweke is allowed some satisfaction that the Beckham experiment turned around after its first two seasons were marked by chaos among team management, four coaches and zero playoff berths. Leiweke's latest ambitious project is to bring an NFL team and a new football stadium to L.A., but he still keeps close tabs on the Galaxy for his billionaire boss, AEG founder Phil Anschutz (known as Saint Phil in soccer circles for his willingness to bankroll much of the league when it was struggling financially). Leiweke's take: Beckham's value remains high 4½ years after joining MLS.
"It's the same as when we got him," Leiweke says. "David is going to get us attention as a league, a sport and a team, and whether it's good or bad attention, he's going to take us to the next level. Look at the league today. There are 19 teams [for 2012, up from 10 in '02 and 14 when Beckham joined in '07]. The Galaxy is a $100 million--plus asset. We want to be the first club in the history of soccer in this country—including the New York Cosmos—to do $100 million of gross revenue a year and join the elite in the rest of the world. We've got some years ahead of us to do that, but we could never have had that conversation without David Beckham."
Perhaps, but it's clear that in pursuit of a long-awaited major trophy, the Galaxy now treats Beckham more like a soccer player and less like a human cash register. For a change the team did not schedule a lucrative but energy-draining preseason tour overseas in 2011. And neither Beckham nor Donovan went out on off-season loans to European teams from January to March, giving the players time to rest but also shutting off that potential revenue. Add in other major expenses—including Keane's transfer fee (between $3 million and $6 million) and $3.4 million salary, and the costs of a high-powered coaching staff—and L.A. will be in the red for 2011. "We've made money in some years of this five-year experiment," says Leiweke, "but this year we knew we were going to lose money because of a few decisions we made."