When David Beckham was first introduced as Major League Soccer's most significant and potentially most important signing in January 2007, the event had the look of an all-out celebration. Confetti cannons blew and happy music blared as the man who could help MLS achieve worldwide respect arrived and promised to spend the rest of his career elevating the league and the sport in this country.
That was before Beckham started feeling the itch to keep playing for England, and the 2010 World Cup began moving closer into focus. It was before storied Italian club AC Milan came calling. And it was before he had proved yet again that he could still play at the highest levels.
Now Beckham finds himself at a crossroads. Does he stick to the plan he laid out two years ago when he was first introduced as the man who would save Major League Soccer? Or does he follow what some believe to be his true passion, which is to return to top-flight soccer and make a serious run at what would be his fourth World Cup?
Whether or not Beckham leaves, if he even wants to leave (MLS officials insist that neither Beckham nor his people have even broached the subject), what needs to be made clear is that if he does, it won't hurt the league nearly as much as some skeptics think.
Why? For starters, MLS finds itself in much better shape heading into the 2009 season than it was in back in 2007, when Beckham arrived. Before Beckham, MLS was a 12-team league on the verge of growth, but a league that needed a boost. When the 2009 season kicks off, MLS will be a 15-team league with an international television contract, a list of North American cities interested in expansion and a far better global reputation than it had before Beckham arrived.
The English star has played his part in that growth, giving the league the ultimate world ambassador and domestic drawing card. The problem, if you want to call it that, with the type of buzz that Beckham helped create is that it was bound to fade and the returns were always going to diminish. Sellouts crowds grow smaller and international interest begins to settle, with soccer fans around the world already knowing more about MLS than they ever did before.
"If Beckham left now, you can't really call his time here a failure because of everything he did accomplish already," one MLS team executive said. "How many more people in this country and abroad know more about MLS, or even know MLS, than did before?"
Chicago Fire defender Bakary Soumare knows more than most MLS players just what kind of impact Beckham has had on MLS. Born in Africa and raised in Europe, Soumare, who was named as part of the MLS Best XI team in 2008, travels the world and is constantly reminded of Major League Soccer's increased profile and Beckham's role in that growth.
"Every single time I come across someone who knows I play in the United States, the first thing they ask is about Beckham," Soumare said. "It doesn't matter where I am, and I see these people and they know about our league, and that means something.
"[Beckham] has done a very good job of helping spread the word, so I can't sit here and say it would be wrong for him to leave now," Soumare said. "Has he done enough in two years? That's a tough question, because the plan for the league was five years, but right now [he] has a special opportunity to play for AC Milan, which for me is the biggest team in the world, so I think it would be worse for the league to try and stop him from going."
Does Beckham actually want to leave? While he hasn't come out directly and said as much, his every word is dissected for signs of a potential departure. When he called playing for AC Milan a dream and playing in MLS frustrating, it was easy enough to draw the conclusion that Beckham wants to stay in Italy beyond his March 9 loan date.
L.A. Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena isn't buying any of it and plans on having Beckham in uniform when the season starts.
"He's going to be back here March 9," Arena told the Associated Press. "We've entered into a loan agreement with AC Milan [in which] the player, his agent, AC Milan, ourselves and Major League Soccer understand the guidelines."
You can't really blame Arena and the Galaxy for wanting the story to go away, because if it is true, then Los Angeles could be in a world of hurt. Not just because of the loss of Beckham, which would certainly affect the box office and the team's ability, but also because of what his departure would mean for the potential departure of Landon Donovan.
While Beckham has been drawing most of the worldwide attention for his stint in Italy, Donovan has been enjoying an impressive loan spell with Bayern Munich. He has scored goals and worked his way up Bayern's impressive depth chart. If Donovan has done enough to get Bayern Munich to make MLS and the Galaxy a solid transfer offer, can MLS and L.A. really say no? Especially if they let Beckham go? Or would the Galaxy actually force Donovan to stay while letting Beckham leave?
That is the scenario that must have Arena nervous, because while there has been a sense for months that Donovan would be heading to Europe this year, Beckham was always seen as the one to help offset that blow. With Beckham around, the Galaxy would still draw and would still have one of the league's best players. Now if Beckham were to leave, Los Angeles could be torn between holding on to its one remaining star and letting Donovan go along with Beckham, which would leave the Galaxy with a mountain of transfer cash but a roster thinner than Posh Spice.
As much as the Galaxy would likely struggle if Beckham left (especially if Donovan joined him in heading to Europe), MLS would be strong enough to go on without Beckham. He spent two years as the league's figurehead and world ambassador, and the results off the field suggest that he has already accomplished his main mission. While it would be better if he stayed, the fact that MLS can go on without him after just two years will ultimately prove that his time in MLS was anything but a failure.
Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.