BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. – David Beckham's first Major League Soccer season began with a blast of confetti, a series of speeches and irrepressible optimism amid a jostling scrum of international media on a sunny morning last July.
Season No. 1 ended on a windswept afternoon at Toyota Park on Sunday with a gnawing sense of what might have been for Beckham and the Los Angeles Galaxy. They now have a long offseason to reflect on what happened after failing to make the playoffs in a 1-0 loss to the Chicago Fire.
It's also time to analyze Beckham's impact since coming to MLS. The whirlwind period of his life saddled him with countless obstacles of a personal and professional nature, and it left him with an unforgettable experience as well as a sense of frustration.
"If David writes an autobiography at the end of his career, then this year will need to be a pretty big chapter," Galaxy president Alexi Lalas said.
Lalas is right. From being hailed as the savior of North American soccer to being castigated for returning too slowly from injury in some quarters and attacked for coming back too quickly in others, from a glorious free kick in his competitive home debut to the shock of his father's life-threatening heart attack, Beckham has a hoard of mixed memories to store away from 2007.
So amid all the hype and headlines, what has Beckham done right and wrong since he was swapped from Real Madrid's Galacticos to the Galaxy? Here's the report card.
Beckham spent most of the season sidelined through injury, but his arrival has given MLS the kind of publicity it could only previously have dreamed about.
Matches are now broadcast internationally and crowds have flocked to see the Galaxy, even for matches in which Beckham was ruled out. Also, other high-profile stars in Europe (namely Thierry Henry and Luis Figo) are considering MLS as a realistic option for a change of scenery.
The increased interest has hardened league commissioner Don Garber's resolve to push ahead with bold expansion plans, with at least three more franchises likely to be in operation by 2010.
Beckham's few performances were generally good, but they weren't among his best, giving his critics ammunition to attack him. Only time will tell whether his injury problems were responsible for a downturn in form or whether his best days really are behind him.
In Sunday's loss to Chicago, Beckham's lack of match practice meant he was restricted to half-an-hour of action, but in that time he provided the Galaxy with their first meaningful attacking moves of the game and gave a tantalizing glimpse of what he is capable of. The scheduled exhibition matches this winter will provide extra opportunity for him to develop a chemistry with his teammates. A full preseason should ensure greater cohesion in 2008, too.
Signing Beckham was a no-brainer. It took him just weeks to "pay back" his $6.5 million salary with shirt and ticket sales, and his popularity helped turn the Galaxy into a globally-recognized brand. Yet the organization also wants to be seen as winners. Failing to finish in the top eight of a 13-team league will not get that done.
It is hard to attack someone for wanting to please the public and being desperate to justify his salary. But Beckham, despite all the external pressures heaped upon him, should have resisted the temptation to dive back into action before he was fully healthy earlier in the season.
Playing for England and the Galaxy on consecutive days, on opposite sides of the world, was nothing short of foolhardy. Also, his fierce challenge in the SuperLiga final was an example of enthusiasm, and it cost him a damaged knee and six weeks of rehab.
There are signs Beckham is starting to realize he is not invincible. On Sunday, he pulled out of a potentially dangerous challenge against the Fire that was not glamorous or inspiring, but it was, in the circumstances, sensible.
Beckham's left ankle was still smarting when he landed at LAX before hooking up with his news teammates for the first time. The ankle, which had been significantly worsened by playing on it with cortisone injections in his last game in Spain, was exacerbated further by a dreadful challenge by Chelsea's Steve Sidwell in the final minute of an exhibition game.
Once that had cleared, it would surely all be smooth sailing. But then, the injury curse struck once more in the SuperLiga final on August 29. This time it was the right knee and a layoff of six weeks before returning as a sub in the Galaxy's final two games.
In a summer in which American sports was marred by revelations of Michael Vick's streak of evil, Barry Bonds' allegedly tainted record-breaking and the ugly saga of Tim Donaghy, Beckham was a breath of fresh air.
Humble and polite in his public appearances, charitable and good with children, he sent out the message that in the U.S. at least soccer really is a family sport. As an icon for the sport and a role model for youngsters, he fulfilled every part of his duty.
The positive aspects of Beckham's arrival outweigh any negatives, but to give him too high a mark would ignore the fact that there is considerable room for improvement.
If he can get up to full physical and match fitness at the start of next season, produce the sort of form he showed at the end of his stay at Real Madrid and inspire the Galaxy to a big season in 2008, he will have accomplished his mission. If that is demanding too much of the man, then it is only because he demands the best from himself – and because he has shown time and again that he is capable of handling the weight of such expectations.
More than anything, he and the Galaxy just need a full season of action out of him. That would provide him the opportunity to really make his mark on the team.