Win puts Beckham, Galaxy into MLS title game

Martin Rogers

CARSON, Calif. – David Beckham admitted he has just one more item to cross off his Major League Soccer checklist after helping the Los Angeles Galaxy move to within one game of the championship Sunday with a 3-1 victory over Real Salt Lake.

When Beckham arrived in Tinseltown amid a whirlwind of publicity in 2007, his targets were manifold, including raising the profile of soccer in the United States, boosting the financial viability of the league and transforming the Galaxy's on-field fortunes.

Though the breathless predictions of soccer's propaganda machine led to a false perception that Beckham would fail if he could not make the sport one of the nation's most popular, the England midfielder understood that one man can only do so much.

For all his fame, fortune and ability, any suggestion that Beckham could enable soccer to rival the NFL in the U.S. was ludicrous. Yet, 4½ years in, tangible signs of growth cannot be denied, evidenced even by the declining number of soccer-haters that once raised not only eyebrows but fierce objections to a "European sport."

Last week, figures showed that MLS is now the third-best attended league in the U.S. based on average attendance, pushing it above the NBA and NHL for the first time.

"When people ask me about the growth of the sport in this country, I always tell them to look at the stats," Beckham said. "There are more high-quality players coming here, more new stadiums, more new clubs. Now we are attracting higher attendances as well and I am proud to have been a part of that."

During the miserable times Beckham and the Galaxy suffered in his first two campaigns, it was easy to dismiss his American odyssey as a flop. The team was awful, Beckham was not always healthy, and the Galaxy suffered from poor leadership, especially under coach Ruud Gullit.

Now though, Beckham is firing and motivated, the league is buoyant and the Galaxy's brand is known around the world. All it needs … is some silverware. The Galaxy won two MLS Cups before the Beckham era but the closest it has come with him was a final defeat to Real Salt Lake in 2009 and elimination at the hands of FC Dallas in last year's Western Conference final.

"I came to America with a lot of goals and I feel I have met those goals off the field," Beckham said. "But I haven't won a championship, which is one of the biggest reasons I came here. We are close now; I hope this is the year."

[Related: Beckham changes tone of the game with one kick]

On Sunday, the win over Real Salt Lake secured the conference crown and ensured the side will be an overwhelming favorite when it faces the Houston Dynamo on Nov. 20 at the Home Depot Center.

The Galaxy will not only have home-field advantage, but also likely benefit from the absence of Houston's most effective player, Brad Davis, after the midfielder suffered a freak injury in a win over Sporting Kansas City that clinched the East.

For the Galaxy, a title would be the culmination of everything the franchise has worked toward, but any complacency should have been brushed away by a recent defeat in Houston. The Galaxy looked exhausted as Sunday's game wound down, and the players will appreciate the upcoming break.

"If any team needs two weeks off it is our team," head coach Bruce Arena said. "We will have to be at our very best to win the MLS Cup, and David will be a big part of that. He has been remarkable in the playoffs, his experience and desire have come through."

When a touch of class was needed, Beckham provided it. The Galaxy struck first midway through the first half, courtesy of a Landon Donovan penalty, only to see Real Salt Lake's Alvaro Saborio even the score two minutes later. With the hour mark approaching, the home side had become frustrated, but Beckham calmed the nerves with a perfect cross for Mike Magee to head home from close range.

Republic of Ireland international Robbie Keane extended the advantage at the 68-minute mark to clinch the Galaxy's place in the final.

Beckham's future is not certain. He will either re-sign with the Galaxy for another year or abscond to Europe, most likely to French club Paris St. Germain. Either way, there is no doubt that winning the MLS Cup is the only item on his short-term agenda and a target he feels is necessary to complete his American legacy.

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