CARSON, Calif. — David Beckham has reached the grand finale of his five-year Hollywood saga.
The English superstar will play for his first Major League Soccer championship on Sunday with the Los Angeles Galaxy, hoping to lift the MLS Cup alongside Landon Donovan in vindication of his groundbreaking American experiment.
After posting his best season stateside during the Galaxy's dominant campaign, the midfielder needs just one more victory to earn something he didn't even realize he wanted when he moved to Los Angeles amid all that fanfare in 2007.
"It's only the last year or two that I started to understand the playoff system, to be honest," Beckham said with a grin. "It's something I've got used to now. We've had success in the last three years, but we want the big one. We want the MLS Cup."
For the second straight season, the star-studded Galaxy won the Supporters' Shield as MLS' best regular-season team, which would be the ultimate achievement in any other big soccer league. Los Angeles then rolled to three straight playoff victories, and now they're favored in the MLS Cup against the resilient Houston Dynamo, who must play without injured star Brad Davis.
The neutral-site game serendipitously will be played at Home Depot Center, the Galaxy's home pitch south of downtown Los Angeles. Although the Dynamo are eminently capable of ruining the Galaxy's special day, the stage is set perfectly for Beckham's coronation.
"I felt I'd achieved all I could achieve in Europe, and I wanted another challenge," said Beckham, who finished second in MLS with 15 assists this season before providing similar service in every playoff game. "My experience has been amazing. I've been able to play with some great players. It's gone by really quickly, but I've enjoyed it. ... Of course I want to win the Cup on Sunday, but it's more important for the team that we win it."
Indeed, a victory in Los Angeles' record seventh MLS cup appearance would be a vindication of the Galaxy's star-centered approach to winning in its slow-growth league.
No MLS team has ever won a championship with a designated player — the salary-cap exception created so Los Angeles could sign Beckham to a $32.5 million deal. Donovan and the Galaxy's new Irish striker Robbie Keane — who will return to Los Angeles' lineup after international duty — also are designated players, and much of the league has now taken advantage of the rule in the past two seasons.
This big finish might only be the setup for a sequel for Beckham, who says he'll decide after the season where he'll play next year. While Paris Saint-Germain and a few British clubs are interested, the Galaxy are eager to retain him as the centerpiece of their lucrative new 10-year television deal.
Beckham and his famous family love living in Los Angeles, and the Galaxy also might be the best fit for Beckham's hopes of playing for England at the London Olympics.
"We've lived a pretty normal life," Beckham said before recanting a story about driving his children to breakfast earlier this month and being stunned to see Al Pacino walking around in his neighborhood. "Living in California is something special, and we've enjoyed that."
Although Beckham's chase of his first title draws the attention of the international media and fans who converged on Los Angeles this week, Donovan's determination to win a title also is compelling. The U.S. national team's career scoring leader skipped matches against France and Slovenia in the past two weeks and went on a self-imposed Twitter hiatus to stay focused on the Galaxy's finale.
Donovan already is a three-time MLS champion and the Galaxy's captain, but he's hoping to win another title for coach Bruce Arena, who has transformed the Galaxy from disorganized also-rans into the class of MLS over the past three years.
"He pushes us constantly," Donovan said. "Sometimes it's annoying, he wants it so bad ... but we want to win it for him just as bad."
Nobody in the Galaxy is discounting the Dynamo, the franchise that Donovan led to two MLS titles as the San Jose Earthquakes before it moved to Texas and won two more. Coach Dominic Kinnear's perennial power overcame a slow start this season to roar into the MLS Cup on a nine-game unbeaten streak since Sept. 10, including a 3-1 victory over Los Angeles in the clubs' regular-season finale while the Galaxy rested their best players.
"I think it's pretty impressive we're back here in the final, especially with all the turnover we've had in the last two years," veteran Houston forward Brian Ching said. "We've had new leaders who came in and took on new roles, and we just keep moving forward."
Yet the Dynamo took an enormous blow when Davis, who finished second in league MVP voting, tore a quadriceps muscle during Houston's win at Kansas City two weeks ago. Davis was Houston's leading scorer and the MLS regular-season leader with 16 assists.
"It's kind of a home game for them, but you can't be afraid," said Kinnear, who has earned a spot alongside Arena among the best American coaches in recent history. "We are going to replace (Davis). We can't play with 10. We miss Brad because he makes us a better team, but that's really the last thing we need to talk about."
Either Arena or Kinnear will become the first MLS coach to win three titles.
MLS Cup on the air
Houston (12-9-13) vs. Los Angeles (19-5-10) at Carson, Calif.,
Today, 7 p.m.