When soccer star David Beckham played his last game with the Los Angeles Galaxy here last December, winning the Major League Soccer championship, many hoped he would come back as a coach, owner, or in some other front-office role.
That comeback could now be closer to reality with his announcement Thursday that he is retiring from soccer. Currently at Paris St. Germain – which has already clinched the 2013 French league title – Beckham will play his final game May 26.
Beckham, 38, has not said what he will do next. But the contract that brought him to Los Angeles in 2007 contained a clause allowing him to become an MLS owner at a below-market rate – a clause he has reportedly long promised to exercise.
If he does, either now or in the future, it would be to take part in a product that he helped build.
Beckham's impact on soccer in America can be debated endlessly.
On one hand, he did almost nothing to increase television viewership of MLS, and league attendance – which now exceeds that of the National Basketball Association and National Hockey League, by some measures – was already on an upward swing.
Yet what other athlete could have brought Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes to Galaxy games, as he did? And would other European soccer stars not yet ready to be put out to pasture – from Thierry Henry to Robbie Keane – have come to MLS if Beckham hadn't first?
In short: What other soccer player in the world could have made MLS cool and given it instant credibility, both here and abroad?
In the end, Beckham's five years in the US coincided with a flourishing of the sport. The league expanded into new and wildly successful markets from Toronto to Seattle. It went from paying for its games to be on TV to signing a national TV deal with NBC Sports. And it found a viable business model with the construction of soccer-only stadiums across the US and Canada.
Some of this had to do with Beckham. Much of it didn't. But he was the undeniable face of the league as it was taking its first steps from being a novelty to becoming an up-and-coming player on the American professional sports scene. If Brazilian superstar Pelé effectively introduced the sport of soccer to America during his stint with the New York Cosmos in the 1970s, then Beckham embodied the sport's newfound swagger, and in that way, he was worth every penny of his purported $250 million salary.
“Beckham brought glamor 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,” wrote Los Angeles Times columnist Helene Elliott upon Beckham's departure from L.A.
In a city where basketball has reigned for decades as the first sports choice for glitterati and gum-chewing public alike – with the Los Angeles Lakers winning the NBA title 16 times – Beckham’s movie-star good looks and wife, Victoria (a model, fashion designer, and Posh Spice of the Spice Girls in her own right), were just what was needed to turn heads toward a sport in need of a big splash.
Yet Beckham's time in Los Angeles also underscored a theme that ran through his entire career: that for all the glitz of the Beckham bandwagon, what really turned heads, in the end, was his play on the field.
As a player for Manchester United, he once scored a goal from midfield. For the English national team, he once almost singlehandedly led his country to the World Cup, scoring a fantastic free-kick goal in injury time against Greece. Beckham was the first English player to score at three consecutive World Cups and has the joint-second most assists in this history of the Euro Championships.
In Los Angeles, too, the Beckham effect was most noticeable when he was at his best. For two of his five years, Beckham spent more time playing on loan for an Italian club (AC Milan) than for the Galaxy, thinking that would give him the best chance of being named to England's 2012 World Cup squad. He wasn't, but Beckham redeemed himself in American eyes by playing with style and skill – and commitment – during his last two years with the Galaxy.
The Galaxy won the MLS title both years, and the impact was felt.
“My son adores David Beckham so much I think it’s the reason he’s playing soccer now,” says Renee Showalter, a mother of three sitting at a Starbucks in Sherman Oaks, Calif. She remembers how Beckham angered her husband and others in L.A. when he played two off-seasons with Milan, but "they all got over it."
There's no question that Beckham is well equipped for life after soccer. He played a significant role in the successful bid to bring the 2012 Summer Olympic Games to London, and this March he became the first sportsman from outside China to be invited to become the ambassador for the sport in the country. His savvy in the branding field, including ad campaigns with the shoe company, Adidas, won him admiration beyond the sporting pitch.
Now that savvy is fueling speculation that Beckham might some day be headed back to America.
"Nothing will ever completely replace playing the game I love," Beckham said in a statement. "However, I feel like I'm starting a new adventure, and I'm genuinely excited about what lies ahead."