LOS ANGELES, Calif. – For David Beckham, the most surreal moment of his American adventure didn't come on a soccer field or at a party, but instead involved the Los Angeles Lakers, Jack Nicholson and a Staples Center restroom.
"It was pretty strange," Beckham said in an exclusive interview with Yahoo! Sports. "I was watching the Lakers. I was waiting to go to the restroom and Jack Nicholson comes out and he just says, 'It's all yours, David.' I was like, 'He really knows my name?' "
Beckham's five years in California might be coming to a close, with his contract up at the end of the season. The Galaxy takes on the Houston Dynamo in the MLS Cup final on Sunday with the chance to win its first title of the Beckham era.
There was a minor fitness scare when the England midfielder skipped Thursday practice, with reasons for the absence ranging from a strained hamstring to a common cold. Beckham offered no more detail than an admission that he did indeed sit out.
However, it is unthinkable that he would miss Sunday's showdown, which provides the chance to finally add some tangible silverware to what he feels has been a successful pilgrimage off the field.
When Beckham came to the U.S. in January 2007, it was hoped he could elevate interest in the game and provide a boost in media coverage and attendance. Despite a rocky first season that saw the Galaxy struggle miserably and Beckham struggle through injuries, he has for the most part achieved his goal.
"I have definitely achieved what I wanted to off the field," Beckham said. "I wanted this game and this league to grow, and I didn't expect it to happen so quickly. I said back then it wouldn't happen in one or two years, but in five years a lot has happened. Attendances now rival NBA and NHL – all that in a country where soccer is not the No.1 sport. That is something I am proud to be part of."
Beckham was unveiled as a Galaxy player in July 2007 at a glittering ceremony at the Home Depot Center attended by a string of celebrities and more than 600 media members from around the world. But he soon cut a lonely and frustrated figure, as the reality of MLS' lower standard and the deficiencies of his teammates became apparent.
MLS was still relatively unknown then, but growth has been steady, both in terms of standard and recognition. For the past three seasons the Galaxy has claimed the Supporters' Shield, the title given to the side with the best regular season record. The 36-year-old Beckham frequently gets messages from soccer star friends in England who can access his matches on British television.
Now the aim is to win a trophy, one the Galaxy came to within a whisker of in 2009, but lost the final on penalty kicks to Real Salt Lake. With Beckham, Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane providing the star power and a fine supporting crew including influential Brazilian midfielder Juninho and young American defender Omar Gonzalez, the side is strongly favored to beat the Dynamo.
Beckham suffered similar frustration during his time at Spanish club Real Madrid, which failed to win La Liga in his first three seasons and finally clinched the trophy in his final match there.
"I think you always feel unfulfilled if you don't win a trophy," Beckham said. "No matter where I have played … people asked the same question in my fourth year at Real Madrid and I ended it winning a trophy.
"The last three years have been successful but I want to win the final. Everyone wants to win it. We need to be ready."
After the game Beckham has a decision to make, and there are two favored options. One would be to remain with the Galaxy for one more season, a second would be to switch to the most vocal and financially generous of his suitors, French club Paris St. Germain, allowing him one final crack at playing in the Champions League.
Given that his body does not recover as quickly as it once did – he played much of this season with a fractured spine – retirement could be an option, although he will surely play for the Great Britain Olympic team in London next summer.
The decision-making process will take in many factors, with his ambition, lifestyle and physical health among them.
"I want to finish this season off first, kick back and relax and think about what the future holds for me," Beckham said. "Whether it will be to continue to play or continue to play here, who knows? I want to be a champion at the end of this season, and then I will decide what happens in the future.
"The best thing about being here is just the experience of playing in a different country with different players and being part of a soccer nation that is growing. Being part of the Galaxy this year, it's the most enjoyable year I have had here.
"There are certain things we are able to do here that we couldn't in Europe, but I love London and I love England. I am a very patriotic person about my country. I have loved living here and will continue to love living here because it is a great place to live. Living in L.A. has been incredible for the family. California, the weather, the climate – something like that is a dream. But who knows what is going to happen."
Beckham and his wife, former Spice Girls singer Victoria, have settled in well to the California lifestyle and gained high-profile friends. The soccer star regularly exchanges text messages with his friend Kobe Bryant, yet any suggestion that he is more interested in showbiz than soccer would be unfounded.
His performances in 2011 have been energetic and outstanding, and were a major reason why the Galaxy did not lose a home game during the regular season. As a teammate, Beckham has the full support and admiration of his colleagues and his commitment to the team is beyond question.
The days when some Galaxy fans were unsure of his dedication to the club have long passed. At the end of both Beckham's second and third years in L.A., he went on loan to Italian side AC Milan. That decision, based primarily on his wish to remain in contention for selection to the England national team, did not meet with universal approval, especially when he was injured in Milan and missed most of the 2010 MLS campaign. However, Beckham won over the crowd once more this year, and it is clear that he envisages a bright future for American soccer, one in which he'd like to continue to play a role. He has an option to buy an MLS club at a discount, a move likely to happen before too long.
"I definitely would like to be involved in MLS," Beckham said. "It has been part of my life. Not just living here but being part of MLS, I have enjoyed it. Everyone knows I have an option of a franchise in the league; it is something I am passionate about moving forward.
"The new franchises, the stadiums just for soccer and expansion teams … it shows a growth in a sport in this country. When you look around the league and you see these youth academies in every MLS team, more home-grown talent coming through, it is all positive.
"If it continues to grow like it is growing, it will be up there with the top leagues in the world. Certain things need to happen: We need to bring top talent to this league at a younger age, like 25. That will happen in time. This league has only been going 16 years, and I am proud to have helped it grow."
Whether or not Beckham signs off in fairytale fashion Sunday, whether or not it is indeed the end, there is no disputing that he has been part of a success story. The ludicrous predictions back in 2007 that he would make soccer a rival to the NFL were not of his making and were simply impossible.
But American soccer is in a far healthier position at the end of David Beckham's contract (you know, the one that was supposedly worth $250 million but in reality paid one-eighth of that) than it was at the beginning.
For that, the Beckham era can be regarded with fondness. For that, the Beckham Experiment can be said to have passed its test.
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- David Beckham