"I'm always first to the goalscorer, I've been notorious for that during my career," said Beckham. "This is no different." Left unsaid was how often Beckham beat the crowd to Donovan in their first two seasons together in MLS, yet in this case, everything is different.
Beckham has also been somewhat notorious for proving people wrong, as he's done at Real Madrid, with the English national team, AC Milan, and now with the Galaxy. Coach Bruce Arena knew the most important aspect of Beckham returning from Milan wasn't when he arrived, but what kind of a team he'd be joining.
"Our immediate goal was to make the playoffs," said Arena of a season that started with one win, one loss, and an astonishing nine ties in the first 11 games. "I confidentially had a goal of having 25 points when David Beckham arrived, and we had 24. Then we went on a spectacular run. We wanted to get our heads above water by the time that David got here, and that wasn't easy. We kept ourselves alive. When David came he obviously made us a little bit of a different team."
The Galaxy, already pretty good, got that much better, but not solely because of Beckham, who played only 11 regular-season games, scored two goals, and contributed three assists. As he's done throughout his career, his presence enhanced the abilities of his teammates, drew the attention and occasional foul from opponents, and created more space and time and opportunities for Donovan, et al, and relieved pressure on the defense; the Galaxy conceded a league-worst 62 goals last year, and cut that in half during the 2009 regular season.
Do the math: After that 1-1-9 start, Los Angeles has posted a 13-5-4 mark (including playoffs), and whether either is out wide or in the middle or somewhere in between, Donovan and Beckham strive to integrate their touches and moves and ideas with those of their teammates.
"There's no question those two have a great working relationship right now," said Arena, dismissing the criticisms and snarky comments relayed through the media before he helped broker a détente. "They're classy people with good character. They both want the same thing. They want a good team, they both want to lead."
The rudderless, lost team of 2007 and 2008 now has leadership a'plenty. Defender Gregg Berhalter, midfielder Dema Kovalenko, and goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts are just three of the players added by Arena that brought not only tenacity and talent but drive and determination. Rookie defenders Omar Gonzalez and A.J. DeLaGarza and second-year man Sean Franklin were surrounded by accomplished pros familiar with winning. As many players have stated, that bloated number in the ties column usually reflected comebacks, not collapses.
"We were getting a lot of ties, but they were good ties and good results," said left back Todd Dunivant, who missed the Houston playoff game with an illness but expects to be healthy for the final. "We were coming back, and battling back, and getting results. We were building something. People on the outside might not have seen it, but we were building here. You've seen us get stronger throughout the year and I think it's a result of that work early on."
Donovan has already won league MVP and Goal of the Year. Gonzalez is Rookie of the Year. Arena is Coach of the Year. Donovan believes his namesake should have been Goalkeeper of the Year. Those honors are products of success attained by the team. The previous two turmoil-roiled seasons, as it turns out, were borne of losing, not salary disparities or media scrums or backdoor power struggles.
"Those issues just go away, but we said that at the beginning of the year; that we had a bunch of guys who weren't going to be oohed and ahhed over the hoopla that surrounds David," said Dunivant. "He's been a very good teammate and great guy to have on your team because he's a world class player. We knew the personnel we had was going to be able to deal with that and so far, so good."