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Beckham's shot at redemption

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David Beckham probably had never even heard of Robbie Findley before his arrival in the United States.

Yet Findley, the Real Salt Lake striker who was traded from the Los Angeles Galaxy early this season, handed Beckham and his old club an unexpected shot at glory Saturday.

Findley's 87th-minute goal in a 1-0 victory crushed the playoff hopes of the Colorado Rapids, who could have ended the Galaxy's season with a win. The unexpected result sets up a thrilling final Sunday of Major League Soccer's regular season.

Incredibly, despite months of what they know themselves was nothing better than abject mediocrity, the Galaxy can sneak into the MLS Cup playoffs via the back door by beating the Chicago Fire at Toyota Park on Sunday.

For so long, that door was not just shut but it was firmly padlocked and triple-bolted. The scenario seemed laughably improbable after L.A. lost Beckham to a knee injury on August 29 and hit rock bottom of the Western Conference standings three days later after a 2-1 home defeat to Real Salt Lake.

Now, with the Galaxy's courageous revival of the past six weeks and a smattering of good fortune having conspired to create this season-salvaging finale, it is time for Beckham to shine.

He knows it, too. The man whose life has been a constant stream of attention and scrutiny since he was barely out of his teenage years should be better prepared for this pressure situation than anyone on the L.A. roster.

For all the press conferences, photo shoots, headlines, shirt sales, contract dollars and pop star wife's reality TV shows, it is occasions like these that have really defined Beckham.

Beckham will come off the bench at some stage of Sunday's 3 p.m. ET match, with the game, his team's season and, to some extent his reputation with the American public, likely to be in the balance.

Too much for one man to bear? Don't count on it.

Beckham will not be short of experiences to draw upon. With the hopes of all Englishmen on his shoulders, he has stood tall in vital matches before, scoring on a stunning injury-time free kick against Greece to take England to the 2002 World Cup and producing another glorious free kick against Ecuador to clinch a quarterfinal spot at last year's World Cup despite throwing up on the field due to heat exhaustion. Perhaps only a dozen players worldwide can claim match-winning credentials of that magnitude.

Now, of course, Sunday's showdown will not all be down to one man. Chicago, which only needs a tie to reach the postseason, will be fighting tooth and nail to trip the Galaxy. And in Cuauhtemoc Blanco, the Fire have a genuine big-game performer of their own and a character whose fiery persona will surely be at full blast for this game.

For the Galaxy, much may depend on how the team combines with Beckham once he takes the field. In a frustrating 1-1 draw at home to the New York Red Bulls on Thursday, L.A. often seemed to be caught between looking for its high-profile colleague and making the sensible pass to another teammate. That cohesion comes from months of training together, something which has been impossible due to Beckham's injury problems since transferring from Real Madrid earlier in the summer.

So Beckham must lead by example. If a goal is needed, he must stretch the Chicago defense with pinpoint cross-field passing and have his free-kick trigger ready to hit the target. If the Galaxy are a goal ahead, he must hustle and harass the Fire midfield to deny it from quality possession.

Beckham must be an assured presence that helps to calm the inevitable nerves of his teammates. He must disturb Chicago with his touches of quality and open up room for the attacking unit. He must show what all the fuss is about.

On the down side for L.A.: This will be only Beckham's second substitute appearance since returning from strained knee ligaments, and coach Frank Yallop has admitted his super sub will be rusty. But Beckham doesn't make excuses and he doesn't ask for sympathy. He demands the best of himself and that, more than anything else, is why big-game performances are expected from him.

So, even at less-than-peak condition, the time is now for Beckham to deliver.