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Sunday was branded Decision Day in MLS, but for one of the finest players the American game has ever produced, the choice was made months ago.
DaMarcus Beasley announced his retirement in May, days before his 37th birthday. He made his farewell appearance in the Houston Dynamo’s 4-2 win over the Los Angeles Galaxy, in which a man nearly eight months his senior, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, scored his 30th goal of the season.
Even in the Oprah Giveaway Show of professional sports leagues – “You get a playoff place! You get a playoff place! You get a playoff place!” – it’s been clear for a while that the only way Houston’s players would experience postseason thrills this autumn is by walking three blocks north of BBVA Stadium and scoring a ticket for the Astros.
Waving goodbye to the modest crowd, who gave him a standing ovation when he was substituted in the 89th minute, Beasley’s 20-year career was done.
There was a certain circle-closing neatness in the identity of the opposition, since the Galaxy were Beasley’s first professional club back in 1999 when he was a lithe, precocious winger who idolised Ryan Giggs. Before playing a game in California he was traded to Chicago, where he became enough of a starlet to be signed by then-PSV Eindhoven head coach Guus Hiddink in 2004 as a replacement for Arjen Robben.
With PSV he became the first American to play in the last four of the Champions League; in Britain he may be best remembered for spells with Manchester City (on loan from PSV in 2006-07) and Rangers (2007-10) that were defined by injuries and fitful moments of flair. And for somebody blowing up his BMW.
A move to the Bundesliga with Hanover was an unalloyed flop. But after a solid three-year stint in Mexico with Puebla – where he became fluent in Spanish – he returned to MLS to join Houston shortly after starting all four of the US’s fixtures in the 2014 World Cup. The league decided its finances had evolved enough to offer Designated Player money (about $800,000 annually in Beasley’s case) to a 32-year-old left back. His time in Texas yielded a couple of All-Star selections, a league fair play award, one playoff appearance and the 2018 US Open Cup.
That modest trophy haul from his spell at one of MLS’s lower-profile franchises helps explain why the response to his retirement seems relatively muted when viewed against his overall achievements.
But – even though he was a novelty in the 2000s as an American outfield player holding his own at famous European clubs through skill rather than brawn – there is the sense that Beasley has long been highly respected and slightly underrated. As a 2007 Chicago Tribune headline put it: “Beasley’s game bigger than name”.
A 2015 Guardian list of the best-ever male American players ranked Beasley 18th. You might say that is low for the only USMNT member to play in four World Cups; a man who (like his fellow retiree, Tim Howard) appeared at least once for the national side in each of 16 years, scoring 17 goals in 126 caps (good for seventh-most on the US all-time list).
“A guy who’s played in four World Cups, to have as many caps as he has, you’d put him up there with some of the greatest careers in the history of American soccer,” said Davy Arnaud, Houston’s interim head coach and Beasley’s former international teammate. “He’s athletic, he’s quick, he’s fantastic with his feet but his reading and his understanding of the game I think is what has taken him to the highest level.”
What kept him there is pragmatism: his twilight years have been a masterclass in managed decline as he transitioned to making left-back his permanent position in his early 30s as his body slowed but his mind stayed sharp.
“If I had stayed as a winger, in midfield, would I have played in a fourth World Cup? Probably not,” he told reporters at Houston’s training ground last week.
He was still capable of conjuring the unexpected – this goal from February, say, or a prank on his teammates last week that involved a truck, an image from an infamous New York Times 2002 World Cup “fashion” photoshoot and 110 bags of styrofoam peanuts.
But longevity and consistency made him appear predictable and safe ≠ a stark contrast from his early years as a kid dubbed “Jitterbug” for his kinetic attacking. And a departure from the jinking winger he was in Europe, as liable to frustrate as to thrill, where his side hustle was a diamond jewellery collection.
“That’s been something that I’ve talked about with my business partner. Seriously, it has been. Make a few new pieces, kind of reinvent the line,” he said. “At the same time, I want to stay in football.”
That could mean following his passion for youth development by opening a training centre in Houston, perhaps similar to the Beasley National Soccer School in his native Fort Wayne, Indiana. Or an as-yet-undefined role with the Dynamo: “We have reached out to each other to see if there’s any possibility that we can work together in the future at some point,” he hedged.
His lack of interest in the limelight, as well as his career trajectory, may also explain why he has not transcended his sport into household name status. Beasley never measured his worth in newsprint or television appearances and never cared about outside praise or criticism.
“Everyone has their own opinion. There’s people in the world that think Messi’s not a good player. How in the hell is that possible? But there are people like that. Huh? He’s the best player on the planet. So that stuff does not bother me at all,” he said.
“Even when I was in Germany, I didn’t play [but] I was on the national team, I always had confidence in myself. I never let that go. People said ‘oh, he’s done, what’s he going to do, blah blah blah’. I didn’t go to the media, I didn’t say anything, I didn’t care what people said about me.”
Turns out, pace took him to the top but stamina kept him there. And Beasley proved exceptional not only in his durability, but his resilience. “If they say that I’ve done this or done that… it doesn’t bother me either way,” he said. “Me, I play for the people that’s in [the locker room], I play for my family, the fans, that’s it.”
He’ll have to get used to describing his playing career in the past tense. But it’s easy to believe he is smart and adaptable enough to make a success of life off the pitch. “I’m excited for the future,” he said. “I’m intrigued about what the next chapter is for me.”