Is the former Manchester United midfielder still worth the hefty price tag that brought him to Major League Soccer as the original Designated Player? Right now, yes. David Beckham is worth every penny to the defending MLS Cup and Supporter's Shield winners.
Beckham enjoyed his best season in MLS last year. He was able to stay healthy and contributed more than the goalscoring stats show—two goals in 26 appearances. Beckham provided 15 assists for the Galaxy, a team that was light on stand-out out-and-out strikers for much of the season (Robbie Keane joined the team in August and I'm excluding Landon Donovan from the "out-and-out striker" role because he operated on the wing).
In four MLS Cup matches, Beckham provided four assists for the eventual champions, making him the major supplier for the team's goalscorers. In fact, Beckham had a decisive touch in the Galaxy's game-winning goal against the Houston Dynamo in the MLS Cup Final.
Beckham made the first touch on the goal, flicking on to Robbie Keane with his head. Keane then laid the ball off to Donovan, who slotted his shot past a diving Dynamo goalkeeper, Tally Hall. It was an expensive exchange between three of the league's highest paid players, but it worked because of the class all three posses. Beckham started the move with a simple looking play that players often get wrong.
The goal against Houston was like so many others that Beckham had his hand in over the year. He started the move as the Galaxy's deep-lying playmaker, creating the tempo Los Angeles plays with with his passing ability. The ability to set up goals and create space for other players with his passing is one of the reasons why the Galaxy's ownership, AEG, fought so hard to keep him around for another two seasons, beating out the likes of Queens Park Rangers, Tottenham Hotspur and money-is-no-object Paris Saint-Germain.
Beckham has rejuvenated his career as a deep-lying playmaker for the Galaxy. Galaxy coach Bruce Arena has used Beckham in the holding midfield role similar to Andrea Pirlo, the model regista, of Juventus. Beckham doesn't have the movement he once had now that he's 36 years old, so Arena took him off the wing and placed him in the center of the midfield alongside a hard-worker—the Brazilian Juninho is his favored partner—to track and tackle and let Beckham work with the ball when the Galaxy get it back.
By pushing Beckham further back in the midfield, Arena has given him more space and time on the ball to pick passes and control the tempo of play. With Beckham's eye for a pass and a cross, the space and time he has in the Galaxy midfield allows him to break down opponents and take pressure of his teammates because they know he can receive the ball in tight spaces and work a pass with his impeccable skill.
It's a natural move for the aging midfielder, but one that many players struggle to adapt to, which is a testament to his work ethic and ability on and off the ball.
The move into a deeper role has helped Beckham continue to excel in MLS, a notoriously physical league. And with Beckham on the field, and an infusion of new teams with great fan bases, MLS enjoyed record attendances last year [a league-wide average of 17,872 fans per game in 2011]. That growth is directly related to Beckham in a way.
When he joined the league from Real Madrid in 2007, there were only 12 teams in the league, which was still trying to find its identity and a major breakthrough. Only a few seasons before MLS was on the brink of extinction. Now it's flourishing amid a sports-saturated world, which isn't something every major American sport can say.
Beckham has also had an effect on television deals for the league.
The Galaxy signed a 10-year, $55 million local television deal with Time Warner Cable last season even amid the fears that Beckham might leave for Europe. It showed the faith Time Warner and AEG had that Beckham would return to the Galaxy and help continue the team's winning ways. MLS signed a three-year deal with NBC Sports as well last year, which was an unprecedented deal with a major network that would never have happened before 2007 and Beckham mania.
Is the 36-year-old Beckham worth the money the Galaxy are shelling out? Yes.
He is a rare breed of a player who excels on the field and transitions even better off the field. He drives revenue. He drives the world-wide brand of the team and the league. And the change in position has rejuvenated his career.
When Beckham stands over a free-kick, the opposition knows he can deliver the telling ball with precision and power. He's still the best when it comes to whipping in crosses. And it shows. In two regular season games this year, Beckham already has two assists.
Not bad at all.