David Beckham, whose extended stay in Italy contributed to a tumultuous start to the Los Angeles Galaxy's season, has a chance now to help them lift the Major League Soccer title.
The star-studded Galaxy take on battling Real Salt Lake on Sunday in Seattle in the MLS Cup final, the USA's league's championship match. It seemed an unlikely scenario early in the season for a club that equalled the league's worst record in 2008, and started 2009 with 11 draws in their first 13 matches.
England star Beckham was at the centre of a storm as he stayed on at Italian club AC Milan four months beyond his original loan period, sparking the wrath not only of Galaxy fans but also of team-mate Landon Donovan - who questioned Beckham's commitment to the USA league in a book.
Thanks in part to the intervention of coach Bruce Arena - whose efforts this season earned him Coach of the Year honours - the two mended fences and led the Galaxy to the Western Conference crown. "He has done a lot of things throughout the year to show that he wants to be here," Donovan - named Thursday the MLS Most Valuable Player - said lately of Beckham.
Arena said he wasn't surprised that Galaxy fans came around, saying Beckham's demeanour on the pitch "demonstrated he cares about the LA Galaxy. His performance has quieted his detractors," Arena said. "I never felt David wouldn't be able to handle it. He's played with the biggest clubs in the world. I thought he was able to handle anything, and he's done that."
Indeed Beckham, who was spotted this week wearing a protective boot but is expected to be ready to play, is vying for a championship in a third league. After earning six English premiership titles with Manchester United, he earned a Spanish League crown with Real Madrid.
Real Salt Lake's season also got off to a slow start, with a seven-match winless run. They scratched their way into the play-offs despite a losing record, but won three straight play-off games to earn the Eastern Conference title.
"I don't think any of us focus on who are the underdogs or anything like that," Arena said. "Very little separates one team from the other. Salt Lake have been a competitive team throughout the season."
The Galaxy will be seeking their third league title and are in the championship match for a record sixth time. Real are in the final for the first time, but coach Jason Kreis was irked when pressed on his team's underdog status. "Wow, it sounds like we better not even go," he said sarcastically. "We don't even have a chance, do we?"
Kreis said attention to fundamentals would continue to stand his team in good stead. It was getting away from that early in the season that cost them, he said. "I contributed to that because I was very overconfident," Kreis said.
"I think I added to what was a little bit of an underlying thing on the team that we were a bit overconfident going into this season. We had been reading a bit too much about how we would compete for a championship this year, and we forgot the little things that got us here. We don't have stars on our team, and we had got away from that a little bit."