Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Saturday will mark the end of the most historic and momentous era in MLS history.
Yes, the Los Angeles Galaxy will look to repeat as MLS Cup champions when they face the Houston Dynamo at The Home Depot Center, but the build-up to the title match has been overshadowed by the impending departure of one man: David Beckham.
The English superstar, one of the most recognizable faces on the planet, made waves last week when he announced that his tenure in MLS will come to end, revealing that Saturday's clash with Houston will be his final appearance in a Galaxy shirt.
Beckham signed with MLS in 2007 and a media firestorm fittingly followed. The move was heralded a masterstroke by those eager to watch one of the world's most renowned athletes, but others labeled the coup a publicity stunt to raise the profile of the budding league while offering the aging midfielder a chance to check into an early form of retirement.
Five years later, MLS Commissioner Don Garber professed that Beckham has "over delivered on every measure" during his six seasons in Los Angeles.
"There's arguably not a soccer fan on this planet who doesn't know the L.A. Galaxy and MLS, and David played a significant role in helping us make that happen," Garber said on Monday in a media teleconference call. "We needed David Beckham in 2007 to help drive our credibility, to help grow our popularity. We don't need anything today to get us to the next level. It's a wide variety of initiatives."
Beckham has been essential to helping MLS achieve new heights on and off the pitch, and Garber remains fixated on building upon that success in the future.
"I don't believe we're going to be hurting when David leaves," Garber said. "I'm not saying this as commissioner's spin. David got us to a point and we're going to take it higher and not look back."
That is ambitious, to say the least.
Sure, MLS has a wealth of potential. League-wide average attendance continues to rise after surpassing those of the NBA and the NHL. With more eyeballs on the product, advertising revenue has increased.
But all of these victories can be tied to the Beckham effect. The 37-year-old drew a crowd wherever he traveled for away matches, increasing ticket sales one game at a time for clubs that otherwise would have a tough time reaching full capacity.
And where was all of the sponsorship money before Beckham's arrival? More importantly, will it still be there after he's gone? It certainly can be.
Regardless of Garber's lofty expectations for where he sees MLS heading post- Beckham, there needs to be a face to put the league front-and-center in the minds of global football fans.
Thierry Henry could be that person. The Frenchman signed with Red Bull New York in 2010 and has experienced moderate success, but like Beckham, until he is able to secure some silverware, his impact in MLS will remain in question.
Landon Donovan, who has shouldered a bulk of the promotional responsibilities for MLS over the course his career, is another possibility. Donovan has been the face of the league before, but it is unclear whether the Galaxy attacker will be wearing the team's shirt next season.
"He started as a teenager and he spent his entire life committed to the sport, and I sympathize with what he is experiencing in trying to soul-search and trying to figure out what his future might hold on and off the field," Garber said. "Landon not only has to be a great player, but Landon also carried a lot of the promotional burden of promoting the sport for a decade or more on his shoulders. He played during the day and had to promote it at night, and that's tiring."
Robbie Keane is well-positioned to immediately take up Beckham's mantle. The Ireland international joined Los Angeles last season and has been instrumental in the club's journey to MLS Cup this term. He has benefited greatly from superb midfield service, but is he ready to provide the same level of success with Beckham, and potentially Donovan, departing?
There are plenty of Designated Players around that the league who can help raise the global profile of the league, but unless Torsten Frings, Danny Koevermans, Marco Di Vaio and Alessandro Nesta can make Toronto FC and the Montreal Impact, respectively, relevant franchises, the influence of their footprint on the league will be small.
MLS is a league rooted in development, and while it invests a great deal of resources into nurturing young talent (a necessary measure), it is important to remember that there needs to be some sort of striking entity to sell the product on the big stage.
That onus is still up for grabs. And whether Garber wants to admit it, someone needs to accept that role to prevent MLS from taking a step back.