A defining chapter in U.S. soccer history ended last Saturday, and while the definer was an Englishman, one might have confused him with Everybody's All-American. As David Beckham waved goodbye to the home fans after the Los Angeles Galaxy's second straight MLS Cup championship, he draped the Stars and Stripes over his shoulders, briefly obscuring the Union Jack that was already there. "They couldn't be any warmer, my feelings to this country," Beckham said after L.A.'s 3--1 victory over the Houston Dynamo. "I might be English, but I'm very proud to have been a part of this amazing country."
Have been. More than five years after landing on these shores, the 37-year-old Beckham ended his American adventure in the most emphatic way, by raising a league championship trophy in his final season, just as he'd done in his last year at Manchester United (in 2003) and at Real Madrid (in '07). He was the best passer on the field at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif., unspooling venomous balls over the top and through the middle of the Houston defense. "It's better going out with two titles than one," Beckham said afterward, reflecting on his MLS legacy. "I just hope I brought a bit of interest to the game. The foundations are there now in this league."
All things considered, the Beckham experiment has to be ruled a success—both on the business side (where he and L.A. made money from the start) and on the playing side (where Beckham and the Galaxy shook off two miserable seasons to reach the title game in three of his last four years). It was no coincidence that Beckham won the MLS Cup in the two seasons in which he finally made the Galaxy his top priority. U.S. soccer fans are savvy enough to know when they're getting the maximum from a player, and Beckham—who at times seemed more interested in prolonging his national-team career with England, and had twice gone on loan to AC Milan—regained the full faith of L.A. supporters with his performance and commitment in 2011 and '12.
"I can't imagine there will be another player like David," said Galaxy coach and G.M. Bruce Arena, who won his record fourth MLS title. "Twenty years from now we're still going to talk about David Beckham as the one who helped turn [this league around]."
Perhaps the ultimate legacy of the Beckham era is that MLS doesn't need him to continue growing. There are now 19 teams, compared with 12 when Beckham signed in 2007, and 15 of those play in soccer-specific stadiums. When the league kicks off its 18th season next March, it will have lasted longer than the old NASL (1968--84), which fizzled after foreign stars such as Pelé and Johan Cruyff left. MLS's television ratings leave something to be desired, but mere survival is no longer a concern, following a season of record average attendance (18,807).
In fact, 14-year commissioner Don Garber has set a public goal for MLS of becoming one of the world's top soccer leagues by 2022, laying out four criteria for comparison worldwide: the quality of play, the level of fan support, the local relevance of teams and, most important, the league's value from top to bottom. "That value will create stability and long-term viability," says Garber, who favors a business model that isn't plagued by the inequalities of European soccer, which often relies on Middle Eastern sheikhs and Russian oligarchs to provide billions of dollars.
Garber's vision, shared by MLS owners, is gaining currency—literally. Beckham says he plans to put $25 million of his own money into becoming a part owner of a team, perhaps the Galaxy (whose parent company, AEG, is for sale). And Garber says there are four potential ownership groups interested in the next MLS expansion team, in New York City, where Mayor Michael Bloomberg is fast-tracking support of a $300 million soccer stadium in Queens. Garber hopes for a winning ownership bid of as much as $100 million for the franchise. (The irony: One of the bidders is expected to be the Abu Dhabi owners of Manchester City, who may now see the long-term benefits of MLS's salary cap after losing $300 million following a wild spending spree that brought them last year's English Premier League title.)
As for the Galaxy, the dynasty should carry on post-Beckham, even if the futures of other top performers may be in some doubt. Landon Donovan (below, with Beckham) became only the third player to win a fifth MLS championship, and his decisive penalty kick in the second half broke the league's alltime mark for combined regular- and postseason goals (146), but the 30-year-old admits to going through what he says could be described as a "mental burnout" on soccer over the past two years. Nonetheless, Arena says that he'd be surprised if Donovan didn't return in 2013 for the final year of his contract, after taking a much-needed vacation. If Donovan does walk away, it will be unfortunate: At his best he's still the most dangerous player in the league, and the U.S. could badly use him during next year's final round of qualifiers for World Cup 2014.
Then there's Omar Gonzalez, the 6'5" Galaxy center back, who became the first defender to be named MVP of an MLS Cup final. Gonzalez dominated the air on the back line (clearing every ball that came his way) and in front of the Houston net, heading home the goal that tied the game at 1--1 in the second half and sparked the Galaxy's rally. At 24, Big Omar could make the move to a European club in January, but if he stays, L.A.'s defensive corps will be fearsome, especially with a full season from Gonzalez, who only recently fully recovered from a torn left ACL suffered last January.
Ultimately, the pieces could be there in 2013 for the Galaxy to win an unprecedented third straight MLS crown. Irish forward Robbie Keane scored 22 goals in the '12 regular season and playoffs, making him arguably the Galaxy's best overall contributor; and L.A. has several young players on the rise (Jack McBean, Jose Villarreal). Moreover, it's hard to bet against any team managed by Arena, who continues to show why he's the preeminent coach in U.S. soccer history. "Bruce is what changed this team for me four years ago," Beckham said last week. "He's a great man manager, the way he looks after the players and the team." In fact, Arena ended up working with Beckham longer than any coach in the Brit's career aside from another pretty reputable manager: Manchester United's Sir Alex Ferguson.