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He hadn't showered, hadn't shaved, hadn't changed into an immaculate three-button Burberry suit. At 10:01 p.m. on Sunday, an hour and a half after the final whistle, David Beckham was still wearing a white Galaxy jersey covered with grass stains. He smelled of beer and sweat and champagne. Someone asked him if his three sons—Brooklyn, Cruz and Romeo—had enjoyed celebrating the MLS Cup title on the field after Los Angeles's 1--0 defeat of the Dynamo. "They're life-changing moments, you know?" Beckham said, and the way he smiled, his boyish grin Benjamin Button-ing him from age 36 to six, you knew he didn't mean just for his kids.
Beckham has won trophies of greater importance—the Champions League, the Premier League, Spain's La Liga—but the one he raised in front of 30,281 fans on a damp, cold night at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif., may have been the hardest-earned of his 18-year career. When Beckham arrived in America in 2007, he had no idea what lay ahead: two seasons of losing unlike any he had ever endured; injuries to his left Achilles and left ankle that cut short his time on the field; and, more than once, the siren song of European soccer pulling him back across the Atlantic. "Until you play here, you don't realize what a challenge it is," Beckham said last week. "It's a tough league to play in. There's good players, good teams, and it's been a challenge physically and mentally."
But Beckham persevered, saving his finest MLS season for the last year of his five-year, $32.5 million contract. In what may have been the final game of his MLS career, Beckham played a central role in the decisive moment, sending an incisive flick-on header to forward Robbie Keane, who laid off to Landon Donovan slicing into the Dynamo box. Donovan poked the ball past Houston keeper Tally Hall with the outside of his right boot for the 72nd-minute goal. It was a combination of exquisite quality, the kind you get when you pay those three players a combined $12 million a year. And in one spectacular scoring sequence the Galaxy's Three Musketeers not only sealed Beckham's on-field American legacy—you can call it a success now—but may have also ushered in a new era in the history of the league.
After all, the L.A.-Houston final was a clash of opposing philosophies on how to build a team. The Dynamo (2011 wages: $3.5 million) won championships in 2006 and '07 and reached this year's final by abstaining from big-money signings, instead spreading its budget relatively equally among its component parts. Egos need not apply. "No player is bigger than the team, and I think that's why we've been successful," said Houston forward Brian Ching, who had a point. In the first four seasons of MLS's Beckham Rule, which allowed clubs to sign up to three designated players outside the salary cap, no team with such a player had won the title.
That changed on Sunday. Los Angeles (wages: an MLS-record $14.7 million) carried three DPs in Beckham, Donovan and Irish international Keane, who showed throughout the playoffs that Galaxy owner AEG's investment was worth the money. In a league full of penny-pinchers, L.A.'s success may finally open more purse strings. "I think AEG will do literally anything to win with their player signings and all the little things that other teams don't get," said Galaxy midfielder Mike Magee, who scored three times in four playoff games. "I hear horror stories about how other teams travel, but when we go to CONCACAF tournaments we're on the Lakers' plane. Everything's first class."
But there was more to the Galaxy's title than writing checks. Coach Bruce Arena achieved two major feats after taking over a dysfunctional team in 2008: He assembled a sterling cast of complementary players, not least on the defensive end, and he brought together his two squabbling stars, Beckham and Donovan, after their public conflict had threatened to blow up the Galaxy. "Bruce loves the circus," explained AEG president Tim Leiweke. "He has a manner and a style about him that can exist in the spotlight, and he created an environment in the locker room that would get rid of the egos." With his unprecedented third MLS Cup win, Arena only enhanced his status as the most accomplished U.S. soccer coach of all time.
To see him with his arms around Beckham and Donovan at the postgame press conference was to understand the magnitude of his management skills. What's more, both players had been dealing with injuries: Donovan with a lingering right quadriceps strain and Beckham with a right hamstring strain suffered five days before the game. Yet Arena maintained all week that Beckham would be ready for the final. "This guy is as good as it comes," Arena said afterward. "He has an unbelievable desire to win. And he's done it all now in every country he's been in."
From a business standpoint, Beckham's American adventure has been a winner from the start for him, the Galaxy and MLS, all of which have made money from his years in America. And while one championship in five seasons isn't exactly domination, Beckham can now point to 2011 with pride. "To me, David's signing wasn't an experiment; to me it's the Beckham experience," commissioner Don Garber said last week. "He has delivered in every way. He's a good citizen. He has worked hard to help us in every way we've asked. He's helped drive our attendance [a record 17,872 fans per game in 2011] and television ratings [which were up on all platforms this year; the league also signed a three-year deal with NBC that begins next season]. And he had an unbelievable year this year. I wonder what his on-field performance would have been if he'd played full time for the last five years."
The other big question, of course, is what comes next for Beckham. Beyond the Galaxy, his suitors include Paris Saint-Germain and clubs in England, and though he says his family enjoys Los Angeles, it's possible that winning the MLS Cup could push him toward leaving the league on a high note. "If David stays, it'll be one more year, so we understand the windows and we're out looking for the next guy," says Leiweke. "There will never be another David Beckham, but the great news is we don't need David Beckham now. Will it be a high-profile player? Yes. But it'll be a player without the ambassadorial skills David has. We have a few possibilities." That commitment to stocking the Galaxy with star power is one reason the team announced an unprecedented 10-year, $55 million local television deal with Time Warner Cable last week.
Beckham remained noncommittal after the victory, preferring to focus on the Galaxy's long-awaited championship. "Tonight's going to be a good night," he kept saying, echoing Black Eyed Peas rapper will.i.am, whom Beckham introduced later at the Staples Center victory party.