As the MLS Cup playoffs get set to begin, the MLSsoccer.com series "Playoffs In Profile" will take a look at the players and personalities who will each play a crucial role in their teams' hopes of winning the MLS Cup.
In our final installment, LA Galaxy beat writer Luis Bueno looks at the injury that sidelined David Beckham, his drive to return to the field before the 2010 MLS postseason and how it rekindled a love of soccer in one of the game's most accomplished veterans. Check back with MLSsoccer.com to read the latest story as the "Playoffs in Profile" series continues this week.
CARSON, Calif. – When David Beckham took a seemingly innocuous step backwards in an AC Milan match in mid-March, few could have faulted him if he’d made it his final move on a pitch in 2010.
The former England captain tore his Achilles tendon, and suddenly his World Cup hopes vanished. Originally his prognosis for playing at all in 2010 was bleak, considering that the rehabilitation of such a devastating injury at 35 years old is akin to moving a mountain.
On the brink of his second-ever MLS Cup Playoffs, consider the mountain moved. Beckham overcame the odds and beat his rehabilitation timetable by nearly a month, and he’s once again one of the Galaxy’s most valuable assets as they open their Western Conference semifinal series against the Seattle Sounders on Sunday.
While he’s admittedly still not 100 percent, that Beckham can play an effective 90 minutes at all this postseason is one of the league’s most inspirational comeback stories of the year.
[inline_node:321952]“I’m close now,” Beckham said after Sunday’s season-ending 2-1 win over FC Dallas. “Obviously being out for six months and not being able to do anything was difficult. The last few games I’ve got a full 90 minutes in and I’ve enjoyed it. Physically I’m feeling as close to full fitness.”
March 14 shouldn’t have been a day that stood out in Beckham’s career. Back in Europe and on loan with AC Milan, Beckham suited up for the Rossoneri in a seemingly mundane Serie A match against underdog Chievo Verona.
But Beckham crumpled to the ground late in the match with what he instantly suspected was a torn left Achilles tendon, an injury that instantly buried his hopes of playing in his fourth World Cup and threatened the likelihood he’d play professionally again.
Such a blow could have affected him mentally and emotionally, and who could fault him had he endured a months-long pity party?
If he felt sorry for himself, the sentiment lasted maybe 24 hours.
“The morning after was the worst time, just before the surgery,” Beckham said. “I’ve kind of come to terms with it, I knew I wouldn’t be involved, I knew I wouldn’t be going to the World Cup as soon as I did it. I kind of got it into my head: There are other things I can be doing. And all I did was concentrate on getting back fit. It was always disappointing to be out of the game.”
The World Cup came and went, but Beckham traded a jersey for a gray suit and served his national team as an honorary advisor and scout. At that point, it was anyone’s guess if he would return again.
Beckham, however, knew his fate hadn’t been sealed just yet.
“That’s one of the reasons I’m in the condition I am, and I’ve come back as soon as I have," he said. "I am a positive person. I’ve always believed if I look after myself that I would come back sooner than people expected.”
[inline_node:321955]Beckham remained close to both England and the Galaxy during his injury, and that strange mix of proximity and restraint aroused some newfound emotions for a player who made his professional debut with Manchester United 18 years ago.
“I think that’s one of the biggest things that’s come out of me being injured for these six months,” he said. “I’ve had other injuries, but nothing that’s kept me out for so long. It has made me realize how much I love the game, and I’m not ready to finish.”
When he finally returned to the Galaxy in mid-August, nearly nearly five months after his fateful step against Chievo, his enthusiasm and fervor did not go unnoticed.
“When he’s out there, you can tell he’s excited,” Galaxy captain Landon Donovan said. “It’s almost like having a rookie here. When you’ve been out that long and you’ve played soccer your whole life, it’s natural to be very anxious to be back on the side.”
Return To Form
To rejoin the team for training was one thing, but playing in a game was another. Surely the injury and months without activity had taken a toll, and there were plenty of doubters who wondered if it was all too much to overcome.
Beckham, though, appeared in seven games and a logged a total of 466 minutes, scoring two goals and adding an assist.
Against FC Dallas last Sunday, Beckham scored his second goal of the season, an important equalizer that helped the Galaxy overcome an early deficit. Beckham’s influence was felt throughout the match, as it has been from when he first stepped on the field against Columbus on Sept. 11.
[inline_node:321660]“David I think took a big step forward,” Galaxy coach Bruce Arena said after the victory. “This is the best overall performance he’s had. His fitness was much better. He played on both sides of the ball and obviously [scored] a great goal.”
Adding to the significance of his performance was that it came in the team’s biggest game of the season. A loss would have relegated the Galaxy to second place in the Western Conference and handed both home-field advantage and the league’s best record to Real Salt Lake.
Instead, Los Angeles nailed down the top spot in the Western Conference as well as the Supporters’ Shield.
In doing so, Beckham won his first piece of silverware as a member of the Galaxy. But to think he’ll stop now, with another shot at the MLS Cup beckoning, would be the biggest misstep yet.
“It’s what we strive for,” he said. “It’s what you want as any athlete, to win accolades, to win trophies and we did that. I’ve won obviously quite a few over the years I’ve been playing. It’s nice now to have won something else.
"For us, now it’s not over. We want to go all the way and we want to win everything, and we can only do that with hard work.”