By Paul Gardner
A strange day, Saturday. A triumphant one for MLS and for David Beckham, yes. But a low-key sort of triumph, without the fanfares and the swagger that can so easily overwhelm such an occasion.
For a start, the game itself. Obviously, the Dynamo and the Galaxy did not give us the game that they should have done, or that MLS wanted. A Cup Final should be glamorous and exciting and full of good soccer and above all climactic.
MLS Cup 2012 fell short on all those counts. A ragged first half was full of misplaced passes and desultory play. As the Galaxy was the chief offender, the half belonged clearly to the Dynamo, which deserved its 1-0 lead.
Things were better in the second half, particularly for the Galaxy. The Dynamo fell away in alarming fashion, something that I have never seen before with a Dominic Kinnear-coached team.
From being the dominant team in the first half, the Dynamo turned curiously passive, doing little to defend against Omar Gonzalez’s game-tying header, and then frittering the game away by giving up two penalty kicks.
Four goals, then -- but two PKs. Nothing memorable there. In fact, nothing memorable at all. We’ve grown used to this -- it’s not the fault of MLS -- soccer lately has shown itself virtually incapable of producing memorable finals.
Yet ... there was something that was just right about this final. The event -- rather than the game -- had carried ominous overtones of becoming a celebrity occasion. The apotheosis of David Beckham. His last game for MLS. An occasion to be milked for all it was worth. Pukesville threatened. But it never arrived.
And one of the biggest reasons why this event kept its feet on the ground, why it never soared off into the sickly heights of Hollywood buffoonery, was the man himself, David Beckham.
There were plenty of attempts to crown him king of all he surveyed, not least from MLS Commissioner Don Garber, who declared that Beckham, in his five and a half years with MLS, had “over delivered” on his commitments to grow the league and to cement its credibility.
Garber did concede, though, that MLS could probably get along quite well now without Beckham -- at least as a player. Much was made, in editorials and columns, of Beckham’s influence in encouraging other world stars to come to MLS.
Yet this has always been the weakest part of the pro-Beckham argument. There has been no stampede of soccer superstars to these shores. Maybe half a dozen of them in five years -- and of these, only Robbie Keane has had any impact.
Truth be told, Beckham has caused some top overseas players to look at MLS. But not because of Beckham being Beckham, but rather because Beckham showed that MLS was willing to spend real money. Until the Beckham moment, the salaries available in MLS were piddling compared to those in Europe, a fact that was well known to top stars, or at least to their agents.
So Beckham, by being paid way, way higher than any other MLS player, did create interest in the league. And while his commitment to MLS was almost laughably questionable in his first two years, things have gotten a lot better.
He has been a regular starter on the team over the past two years -- probably he has played more than he should have done. He is 37 ... and that is a point to be made about Saturday’s game. At some point during his stay in L.A., the soccer world, without quite noticing it, said goodbye to the Beckham we’d all grown used to -- the enthusiastic, bubbling, boyish Beckham.
Beckham, maybe, noticed the change later than anyone. But surely the ill-fated loan deal with Milan in 2010 -- which ended in the disaster of a snapped Achilles’ tendon -- sent a harsh message that however Peter-Pannish Beckham may have believed himself to be, his body simply could not cope with the demands of being young forever.
By now there can be no doubt. After the final, it was a very tired-looking Beckham who faced the TV cameras. It was also, in every respect, Beckham at his most attractive. Throughout his rise to worldwide fame, Beckham has managed to stay away from the worst excesses, and resist the devious temptations, of the celebrity lifestyle.
His critics have been few because he has, on the whole, behaved like a decent human being. Boasting and melodramatics have never been the Beckham style. There has been, about him, a Candide-like innocence, an attractive personality trait that leads people to like him, and to wish him well in the treacherous world of global soccer. He has done well, and he has survived.
The David Beckham we got on Saturday seemed to me to be perfect for the event, for the occasion, even for the game. His modest performance on the field was just right for this occasion. No winning goal, no last-minute heroics from Beckham, so no temptation for things to be hyped up beyond the bearable.
In the on-camera interviews he said all the right things -- but he said them simply and straightforwardly and they sounded genuine. There was an easy charm to the way he dealt with the questions -- to have retained the common touch after all his years in the glossy celebrity world is a hell of an achievement.
Although this game, this 2012 MLS Cup, was such an ordinary game in most respects, it did provide the happy ending that the event sought. Beckham departing as a champion.
Of course, such a view is uncharitable to the Dynamo, who are thus cast almost as sacrificial victims. Their strange second-half collapse seemed to be what the fates demanded ... a showcase for the Galaxy, for Bruce Arena, for Landon Donovan, and for David Beckham. That was the climax, when things could still have gone wildly wrong, when a gaudy Hollywood-style hype and all its inanities could have taken over and ruined everything.
But the fates were still watching over this production. Or was it merely something as prosaic as TV scheduling that kept the postgame stuff mercifully brief?
Beckham has talked of one more challenge -- presumably he means on the playing field. So Peter Pan Beckham lives on? I hope not. Saturday’s low-key, but still moving, farewell managed to combine the brashness of a sports event with the dignity of an adult occasion. It would be a great shame to see it cheapened by an inevitably synthetic encore.