CARSON, Calif. -- David Beckham had a decision to make last year when he walked off the field at the Home Depot Center after winning the MLS Cup.
It seemed like a storybook ending to his time with the Los Angeles Galaxy and Major League Soccer after signing a blockbuster five-year contract in 2007. It even seemed like a storybook ending to Beckham as he raised the trophy above his head and put championship scarves around his sons, Brooklyn, Romeo and Cruz, while his wife, Victoria, and daughter, Harper, looked on from a suite.
"Last year felt like the right time to step away because it was the end of my five-year contract, winning the championship in my last year in our stadium in front of our own fans. It kind of felt right to leave," Beckham said. "I discussed it with my family, and I just felt like I had some unfinished business here."
Beckham finished whatever "unfinished business" he had Saturday when the Galaxy beat the Houston Dynamo 3-1 to win their second straight MLS Cup in front of a sold-out crowd of 30,510 that included Gerard Butler, Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash and Pau Gasol.
When Robbie Keane kicked the final goal of the game in added time, Beckham dropped to his knees and looked up before jumping into the arms of Landon Donovan. Galaxy coach Bruce Arena then subbed Beckham out for Marcelo Sarvas, and every player on the Galaxy gave Beckham a hug as he left to a standing ovation.
This time seemed like the right time for Beckham to exit stage right. He announced last month that Saturday's final would be his last game in Los Angeles and in MLS. He wasn't retiring, simply moving on to "one last challenge before the end of my playing career."
Whatever the challenge turns out to be -- there are plenty of rumors but no confirmations from Beckham -- it will pale in comparison to the challenge he faced when he left Real Madrid and committed to the Galaxy on Jan. 11, 2007.
Some of the greatest players in the world, including Pele, Franz Beckenbauer and Johan Cruyff, tried to take on the challenge of making soccer relevant and sustainable in the United States, and it can certainly be argued that no one had more success in doing that than Beckham did.
As much as Beckham wants to win championships -- he now has won a trophy in his final season with Manchester United, Real Madrid and the Galaxy -- titles will not define Beckham's legacy in the United States as they might elsewhere.
Few fans in this country, and certainly around the globe, knew what the MLS Cup or even MLS was before Beckham's arrival. Sure, they may have heard of the league, but how many teams or players could they name? Saturday's MLS Cup game was televised in 157 countries, and reporters from around the globe were in the press box. Such a global footprint was only a figment in the imagination of MLS commissioner Don Garber six years ago.
"When David came to MLS in 2007, he said that he was not coming here to retire," Garber said. "He was coming here to be a part of a team, to work hard and hopefully win some championships. And very importantly, he was coming here to help grow the sport of soccer in America and to make MLS more popular here and abroad. I do not think that anybody would doubt that he has overdelivered on every one of those measures. There is arguably not a soccer fan on this planet that does not know the L.A. Galaxy and Major League Soccer. David played a significant role in helping us make that happen."
Some may try to tie Beckham's success in the U.S. simply to the popularity of the game within the country, but it is so much more than that. It's about the way the league and its players are perceived around the world. Beckham's arrival put the Galaxy and MLS on the global stage, giving each the kind of credibility previously only talked about in boardrooms while discussing long-term goals for the league.
Beckham seemingly made it acceptable for international stars to come to the States before they were past their prime. Beckham helped recruit Keane to the Galaxy, and players such as Thierry Henry and Rafael Marquez in New York have helped raise the profile of the league globally. Even with Beckham on his way out, he has helped the Galaxy and AEG president and CEO Tim Leiweke recruit Kaka and Frank Lampard to replace him and possibly Donovan, who has hinted he could be stepping away from soccer.
Even if neither bid is successful, the fact the Galaxy is making worldwide news by talking to both players is significant.
"When I've been back to Europe and when I go back to England, especially at Christmas, and I'm watching Sky Sports and they're talking about the MLS and they're talking about the Galaxy, Seattle, Red Bull, there's interest there now," Beckham said. "If that's what I brought to this league, then great. Hopefully it's in a great position to continue to grow."
Since Beckham signed with the Galaxy in 2007, seven expansion teams -- Montreal, Portland, Vancouver, Philadelphia, Seattle, San Jose and Toronto -- have debuted in MLS, with another team in New York forthcoming. There has also been a growth in soccer-specific stadiums, with 13 of the league's 19 teams now playing in their own homes, up from five before Beckham's arrival.
Attendance at those stadiums was at unprecedented highs, with an average of 18,807 fans attending games during the 2012 MLS regular season and nearly 22,000 fans turning out per game in the postseason. Those attendance figures are higher than the average at NBA games (17,319) and NHL games (17,126) last season and places MLS in the top seven soccer leagues around the world, ahead of Ligue 1 in France, Eredivisie in the Netherlands and the Chinese Super League.
Beckham returned to the Galaxy and MLS for "unfinished business." After winning his second straight MLS Cup, it's hard to argue that he didn't accomplish his goal. But the business of growing soccer in the U.S. is not finished for Beckham. Wherever he ends up finishing his playing career, he plans on returning to MLS as an owner.
"It's something that I'm excited about," Beckham said of owning an MLS team. "It's something that again, I think, proves my commitment to the league and to whatever club I become part-owner or owner of. I'm excited about that. I'll always be committed to the Galaxy in some way because I've been here six years, and it's like Manchester United, like Real Madrid -- it becomes a home for me."
It's a home that Beckham helped make a household name around the world over the past six years and one that is in a position to continue to grow because of him now that he is leaving.