10:22 PM CST, December 1, 2012
David Beckham walked off the field at the Home Depot Center with a smile on his face and an American flag draped around his shoulders, leaping to high-five one last fan as he ended his most excellent MLS playing adventure with a powerful performance.
Beckham didn't score in the 3-1 victory over Houston that secured the Galaxy's second straight MLS Cup championship, but he was a strong presence with his trademark curving free kicks and dynamic leadership. The Galaxy had been forced to rally all season, and he would not let its playoff journey end Saturday without a bounce-back triumph.
He was sure of himself and his choices, a certainty played out in his every move. If he had a tear in his eye as he exited in front of his three sons — each wearing T-shirts with his No. 23 and the name DADDY on the back — it reflected joy over a job well done, not sorrow over leaving a task unfinished.
"Today's a good day," he said.
By contrast, teammate Landon Donovan seemed detached from the festivities, lost in an emotional and physical state he said could be described as burnout. Saturday's game might have been his last for the Galaxy, too, a decision he's still grappling with.
"It's just been a long two years, for all of us," said the 30-year-old midfielder, who played a key role in the 2010 U.S. World Cup effort. "It's not a woe-is-me story, but I have to listen to my heart and my gut, and right now my gut says to get away for a while."
A muffed scoring chance in the 13th minute left him doubting himself, an odd sensation for one of the best players America has produced. "You feel like you let everybody down and candidly, it sat with me till halftime," he said. "I took a few minutes at halftime and sort of collected myself and tried to stay present, because you can't change it."
He changed the course of the game when he converted the 65th-minute penalty kick that put the Galaxy ahead for good, but he wasn't sure he'd succeed. That, too, was a strange and unwelcome sensation.
"When the penalty came, I'm not going to fool anybody and say I was calm about it. I was pretty nervous," he said, though he extended his MLS records to 22 postseason goals and five in the final.
If this was a joint farewell for Beckham and Donovan they went out in style and in sync, and that wasn't always the case.
Both strong personalities, they initially didn't get along. Maybe over the course of Beckham's six seasons here they learned to appreciate each other's strengths instead of lament each other's weaknesses. With Donovan at an emotional distance lately, Beckham stepped up, joining the electrifying Robbie Keane in elevating a fourth-place regular-season team into a champion. That shouldn't be omitted from the list of Beckham's considerable accomplishments here.
Because he said this victory was harder-won, Beckham was repeatedly asked if it was more meaningful to him than last season's or others. He wouldn't bite.
"The feeling of making the final, the preparation, the feeling around the club — it never gets old," he said. "I'm 37 and I've been able to play in quite a few finals and championship games, and I still love it like I did when I won my first."
Beckham brought glamour and credibility to MLS, which needed them. If some of the gossipy coverage was laughable, it was tolerable because he seemed in on the joke, incredulous that a kid who grew up in modest circumstances in London had become an international soccer and style icon.
Beckham, who has said he's not ready to retire, said he will leave it to others to measure his impact on MLS.
"I just hope I've brought a bit of interest to the game," he said. "If that's the single thing that I've done, then great. But I think the foundations are there now in this league. It's a 17-year-old league and the foundations are great. It will continue to grow."
Someone will replace him as the face of the Galaxy. Keane is a candidate, and the Galaxy is said to be interested in Brazilian midfielder Kaka, who has two more years on his contract with Real Madrid.
Donovan's return would ease the transition to the post-Beckham era, but he said Saturday he wasn't ready to decide anything besides taking a vacation.
"I had a really nice moment where my sister just had a baby and she got to come down on the field and he was sleeping on her," Donovan said of the postgame scene. "It sort of puts it all in perspective and makes me realize that I want to be close to my family for a while, and then I can figure out the soccer part later."
Beckham figured that out and left without regrets. Whatever decision Donovan makes, he deserves the same certainty in an uncertain world.
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