Roger Bennett sampled the MLS Cup final -- David Beckham's last game in the league -- from a unique vantage point: right behind the L.A. Galaxy bench. This is what he saw.
Once the final whistle blew on Saturday, David Beckham draped himself in a Union Jack like a caped British superhero. After his Galaxy teammates had long since departed to celebrate their second consecutive MLS Cup victory in the sanctuary of the locker room, Beckham walked around the field in the company of the trophy and his children, savoring a standing ovation from the fans who had once jeered him. While their hero promenaded around, as dapper as a World War I flying ace after a misadventurous night in a tattoo parlor, the Galaxy faithful refused to let him leave the field.
Beckham is 37, and his game is all about quality and economy, an evident truth right from the warm-up. As his teammates ran through their pregame drills, the onetime England captain stood in the middle of the Home Depot Center turf, pinging pinpoint passes to both corners of the field. Suitably satisfied with the calibration of his right foot, he strolled back to the locker room, leaving the rest of his squad to take turns smashing the ball at an empty net.
Carlisle: Becks rides off into sunset
Three things we learned
VIDEO: Garber's take on Beckham
The game against Houston Dynamo had been billed as a clash of opposites played between bold-faced names and everymen, sequins and grit. Yet Houston refused to act out the role in which it had been cast -- that of anonymous cannon fodder in a war movie. The team was expected to offer organized resistance and play aggressively on the break. Yet propelled by the tireless drums and bugles of their giddy fans, the visitors played against type, taking the lead on a 44th-minute Calen Carr goal and daring to control the first half with better movement, passing and possession.
The Dynamo players were all smiles as they trotted back onto the field for the second half, sensing a victory that would have been as surprising as an indie movie outmuscling a studio blockbuster at the box office.
Yet Beckham stepped up his play to will his team on, commando rolling after the ball as confetti wafted around his boots like stardust. Wherever the Englishman trotted, Houston's Ricardo Clark was sure to follow. Whichever one of his eponymous colognes Beckham had favored for this final, the Houston midfielder was guaranteed to smell of it by game's end.
Patrolling an area around the center circle -- which conveniently was the only part of the field to be bathed in sunlight -- Beckham repeatedly drove the ball out onto the flanks. Part midfield pendulum, part self-aware matinee idol, he soaked up the flattering light, eager for the news reel highlight that could crown his final game.
As it turned out, the single memorable moment in last year's final was the winning goal when Beckham, Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan combined to create a clip tailor-made for "SportsCenter." As anyone in the movie business will tell you, sequels rarely offer up that same magic. Try as they might, the big three continuously conspired to craft a Hollywood ending on Saturday only to fluff their lines.
In the 13th minute Saturday, Beckham effortlessly dropped a ball into space, releasing the snarling Keane behind the Houston defense. The Irishman generously elected to roll the ball across the area toward Donovan, but faced with an open goal, Donovan inexplicably fired wide. Beckham stood with hands on hips shaking his head, and Keane howled as the Galaxy captain strove to summon a stoic look he would later confess he did not feel inside.
The most telling statistic of the first half was the number of times Donovan and Robbie shared a word on the field: zero. As the second half kicked off, the Galaxy's big-name trio began to communicate through coach Bruce Arena, constantly checking in for direction and insight. The manager, who had first instilled order amid the Galaxy's chaos in 2008, patrolled his technical area with the smugness of a high school principal on the first day of school, confident that all was under his control.
The game ultimately turned in the 59th minute, when Carr left the game with a knee injury. With the helmeted forward in the game, the Dynamo had a focal point to their thrust. Yet once the California native departed, the team's initiative dissolved and quickly became undone in the most uncharacteristic of ways: disorganized defending on two set pieces.
When outstanding Los Angeles defender Omar Gonzalez leveled the game at 1 with a looping header, Donovan charged into the goal, grabbed the ball and raced back to the center circle with it tucked under his arm like a youth soccer player eager to get his goal. It would soon come.
When the captain dispatched a penalty-kick goal minutes later, having summoned the composure that had let him down in the first half, he celebrated with a release of emotion, running to the bench to leap into the arms of Ian Feuer, the Galaxy's goalkeeping coach. Feuer later revealed that he and Donovan had spent hours breaking down Dynamo keeper Tally Hall's penalty-kick tendencies ahead of the game. Their study had clearly paid off.
Suddenly behind 2-1, Houston coach Dominic Kinnear began to scream at his players with the barely controlled menace of a suburban karate instructor, yet once his team moved to a back three to try to save the game, chances began to come thick and fast for the Galaxy. Beckham pushed further forward, eager to grab one final highlight.
In the 89th minute, Keane was tripped up on a break. An excited Beckham sprinted toward the referee to claim the free kick, using a burst of acceleration he had rarely demonstrated in the game, only to give up the opportunity of one last direct shot on goal, wisely whipping the ball out to the wings to run down the clock.
With seconds remaining, the Galaxy earned a second penalty. On the field, Donovan conferred with Beckham and pointed him toward the penalty area, but Keane had already grabbed the ball and was preparing to take the spot kick. He made no mistake, and at 3-1 up, Beckham was left to drop to the turf on his knees, arms raised toward the sky, staging the camera opportunity the photographers craved, irrespective.
There was still time for one last theatrical flourish. With the result beyond doubt, Arena substituted Beckham, granting the Englishman an emotional final scene. Beckham seized the moment with grace, walking down the bench to hug every last man, including the youth team players at the end.
As the final whistle sounded, the Union Jack appeared. Ever the showman, Beckham cast it around his neck, aware of how well the prop would play for the tabloid newspapers back home in Britain. While soaking up his final lap of honor around the Home Depot Center, a handler desperately tried to add a Star-Spangled Banner to his shoulders. Twice he placed it and twice it fell off, landing on the turf, like a skin that had just been shed.
Roger Bennett is a columnist for ESPN FC and, with Michael Davies, is one of Grantland's "Men In Blazers." Follow him on Twitter @rogbennett.