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He's only one man, a thirty-something bloke from England with visions of taking his sons to Disneyland and the beach, of making his first treks to Vegas and the Napa Valley wine country, of organizing late-night runs to the hoariest of SoCal institutions. "In-N-Out Burger. Ohhhhh. . . ," says David Beckham, imagining his new life on a rainy spring afternoon in Madrid. "That's another great experience. I ate inside the last time I was there."

He's only one man, which is clear when he arrives at the photo studio sans entourage—a half hour early at that. In his white V-neck T-shirt, blue jeans and five-year-old brown work boots, the world's most recognizable athlete could almost pass for a ranch hand in Kalispell. His famous hair is shorn close (a remedy for an ill-conceived, bleach-blond dye job), and both wrists are brimming: a green malachite bracelet (for the anti-blood-diamond charity run by hip-hop impresario Russell Simmons), a silver charm bracelet (a gift from his wife, Victoria) and three multi-colored evil-eye bracelets for good luck. At the end of an hourlong photo shoot he individually thanks the small army of assistants, not once but twice. "I've never had that happen before," says one.

He's only one man, and the task before him seems as formidable as converting Americans to the metric system. Can one man make the U.S. public care about the Los Angeles Galaxy? About Major League Soccer? About a sport that neither hosting the 1994 World Cup nor harboring the greatest player ever—Pelé—could turn into the mainstream religion that it is nearly everywhere else on the planet?

Or is it possible that 32-year-old David Beckham—ball-bending savant, global pitchman, the newest member of the American sports firmament—isn't acting alone? Could he merely be the catalyst for a transformation already underway? The mastermind of American Idol thinks so. Simon Fuller, Beckham's manager and the chief executive of London-based 19 Entertainment, acknowledges that making soccer really matter in the U.S. will be a "far greater" challenge than turning Idol into this country's most popular television program, but that hasn't stopped Fuller from hatching "a grand vision" (his words) for the next chapter of his most famous client's career.

"There seems to be a real foundation now for soccer [in the U.S.]," says Fuller, who engineered the midfielder's guaranteed five-year, $32.5 million contract (plus profit-sharing and mega incentives) with the Galaxy. "David is the most iconic of all footballers, and he's achieved pretty much everything you can achieve in Europe, apart from maybe winning a big tournament with England. He's still in his early 30s, still playing remarkably well, and you have to start thinking, What's the next adventure? The States is the last frontier in terms of soccer."

A grand vision. An adventure. The last frontier. There's something quintessentially American about what these Brits are trying to achieve. "I'm not silly enough to think I'm going to change the whole culture, because it's not going to happen," says Beckham, "but I do have a belief that soccer can go to a different level, and I'd love to be a part of that." He vows that he's in this New World Adventure for the long haul—hence the five-year deal.

As Fuller puts it,"If you have most things you want in life, you can take it easy, you can retire, you can continue to take money off a team in Europe. But our ambition is bigger than that. Shoot for the stars, and if you don't hit them, then it was fun trying.

"If you do hit them, then you've made history."

When Beckham first takes the field for the Galaxy—most likely in a friendly against England's Chelsea FC on July 21 at the Home Depot Center—he'll carry a raft of expectations, many of which he's already trying to dispel. To wit, he's not going to L.A. to join his pal Tom Cruise on the silver screen. ("Acting is never something I've been interested in," says Beckham, who won't be appearing in the NBC reality show starring Victoria, a.k.a. Posh Spice.) He's not likely to score three goals a game. ("That's one thing I'm worried about," he admits, "because people probably do think they're going to see me turn out, and we'll win our first game 10-nil.") And he's not crossing the Atlantic simply to be a marketing tool. (Though his signature cologne, Instinct, is available in many fine drugstores.)

"It's not a big brand thing," Beckham insists. "It's about me being the ambassador for MLS. If I can make people more aware and make kids realize that you can go into higher levels and make a great living from playing soccer, that's what I'm going over there to do."

The soccer-savvy audience knows that Beckham isn't fast, rarely uses his head or his left foot and won't win games by himself. But the skills he has are wondrous: a quarterback's vision, a conductor's mastery of tempo and a right foot that can hit 40-yard passes on a dime. "I'm not a player who will run past 10 players and score three or four goals," Beckham says. "My game is about working hard, being a team player and assists." And, of course, those glorious, swerving free kicks, dramatic set pieces tailor-made for American attention spans, YouTube clips and highlight packages.

Let's make one thing clear: Beckham can still play. When he stunned the world by signing with the Galaxy last January, European cynics wrote him off as irrelevant to the sport's highest levels, a de facto retiree settling for easy money in a backwater league. Beckham's career with the national team, which he once captained, appeared over—new coach Steve McClaren had dropped him after last year's World Cup—and his coach at Real Madrid, Fabio Capello, announced he would never play for the club again. "David Beckham will be a B-list actor living in Hollywood," sniffed Madrid president Ramón Calderón.

More Madonna than Maradona, Beckham has always had a knack for reinvention, and in no time he was plotting his latest comeback. "At that point in the season I was surprised at many things that were said about me behind my back that hurt me at the time," Beckham says. "But I've always come back from adversity, and I've always had the mentality of proving people wrong. I had to think, O.K., even if I don't play for Real Madrid again, I'll still carry on training and working like I always have, just in case I do get a chance."

Refusing to lash out at his critics, Beckham earned back his starting position, to say nothing of his teammates' respect, and helped lead Real Madrid on a fairy-tale run from fourth place to the La Liga title, his first significant trophy during his four years in Spain. "At his darkest moment he rediscovered himself and found arguably the richest vein of form since his greatest days at Manchester United," says Ray Hudson, who broadcasts the Spanish league in the U.S. for GolTV, referring to Beckham's 11-year stint with the English Premier League club. "That in itself is a feat of unbelievable character. I call it testicular fortitude. Whether you love him or you hate him—and I've never been his most ardent fan—it's inarguable that he was as deadly as he's ever been."

Beckham rejoined the national team last month, producing three gorgeous assists in two games, and the transformation was complete. Suddenly the same people who'd buried him five months earlier were begging him to stay in Europe. Too late. When Real Madrid contacted the Galaxy in mid-June about reacquiring Beckham, the response was a swift no. "We made it very clear," says Tim Leiweke, the president and CEO of the Anschutz Entertainment Group, which owns the Galaxy."My Spanish was not tested." Meanwhile, U.K. pundits have continued to lob potshots at MLS, arguing that Beckham won't be sharp for national-team games if he's toiling in "a semiretirement home" (The Guardian) or"a Mickey Mouse league" (The Independent).

True, the quality of MLS is clearly below that of La Liga and the English Premier League, but it isn't nearly as bad as most U.K. commentators think. With Yanks having bought three Premier League teams (Manchester United, Liverpool and Aston Villa) in the past two years, the condescension may reveal British insecurity about the U.S.'s rising soccer influence. "It irritates me so much I want to put my fist through a wall—or through a television set playing Benny Hill," says Galaxy president Alexi Lalas, the Hall of Fame U.S. defender. "It's an ignorance that's fueled by an arrogance."

If Beckham has any second thoughts, he's not voicing them. "A couple of friends think that I should still be playing in Europe because they know I can play at the highest level for at least another three years," Beckham says. "But those people also think I'm doing the right thing because they can see that I'm happy. I've made my decision, and I've got no regrets."

Not long ago Beckham saw Once in a Lifetime, the rollicking 2006 documentary on the New York Cosmos and the North American Soccer League. He marveled at scenes of the Cosmos partying with Mick Jagger at Studio 54, of soccer fans filling Giants Stadium—and of the league disintegrating just a few years later. "It's incredible what that time was like for the Cosmos with Pelé," Beckham says. “But I think this league is definitely more stable than the one back then, when you had a huge amount of money just being put into one team."

Ask any MLS executive why Beckham's U.S. soccer legacy should be more successful than Pelé's, and the word you'll hear is infrastructure. "Back then we didn't have an infrastructure that was prepared to take advantage of the opportunity," says Leiweke. "Pelé was able to hide the lack of true deep roots you need to be successful. That's how great Pelé was, but you knew the minute he left it was over." Today, conditions seem more fertile. Unlike the NASL, the 12th-year, 13-club MLS has seven teams (and counting) playing in soccer-specific stadiums; four new national TV contracts; a country with 42 million Hispanics, many of them soccer lovers; a base of competitive homegrown players feeding a U.S. team that has reached five straight World Cups; and a single-entity business model that prevents teams from spending themselves into bankruptcy by bidding against each other for free agents.

Only two MLS teams are making money, but seven new owners have come on board since 2004, D.C.United was sold for a record $33 million six months ago, and expansion fees are expected to be $30 million when the league grows to 16 teams by 2010. "You couldn't sign Beckham in 1996 [when the league started],"says commissioner Don Garber, "not before you had the right facilities, the right television contracts and the right brands with our teams, so we really understand how to build this business."

"Now things here are more organized," says Pelé. "The league is set up, but they need more good names in the other cities to continue to promote the sport."

That's where Beckham comes in. MLS's increased stability and TV revenue prompted the owners last fall to pass the Designated Player Rule (a.k.a. the Beckham Rule), allowing each team to have up to two players whose salaries aren't limited by the $2.4 million cap. So far three teams have signed players with their DP slots: the New York Red Bulls (Colombian forward Juan Pablo Ángel and U.S. midfielder Claudio Reyna), the Chicago Fire (Mexican forward Cuauhtémoc Blanco) and the Galaxy (Beckham).

In addition to his guaranteed $32.5 million salary over five years, Beckham has the chance to earn in excess of $200 million more—including a reported 40% to 50% of Galaxy jersey sales and an undisclosed share of ticket revenue—in aground-breaking arrangement similar to those of Hollywood stars. "David has already paid for himself," says Leiweke, citing the sold-out luxury suites at the Home Depot Center, the 11,000 season-ticket holders for 27,000 seats and the new five-year deal worth an estimated $20 million with jersey sponsor Herbalife. "But it can't just be David. You can't expect a man to single-handedly change patterns, habits and passion. The greatest thing David has done is to prove that this can work, not only for the player but for the club. That's his legacy: In two years there's going to be a half dozen great players in MLS."

Perhaps. But there's a reason most teams haven't exercised the Beckham Rule: They want to see what happens this summer first. "To the extent that he creates so much curiosity from soccer moms and casual fans and can help generate some interest in MLS, it will work," says David Carter, the executive director of the USC Sports Business Institute. "However, the quality of play had better be up to their expectations, and the level of customer service had better be high. He's going to drive them to the turnstile, but then it's going to be up to MLS and its franchises to keep them coming back."

"The hype is there at the moment, and the hype will be there for maybe six months," says Beckham. "But to keep the interest in soccer: That's going to be the challenge."

It's safe to assume that Kyle Veris won't be buying a house near Beckham's new $22 million palace in Beverly Hills anytime soon. In his second year out of Ohio State, the 6' 4", 195-pound Veris had started 12 games in his MLS career through Sunday, showing promise as a raw but imposing center back with above-average foot skills. Yet Veris's most eye-popping stat has nothing to do with goals or assists. As the holder of an MLS developmental contract, his guaranteed salary for 2007 is $17,700—or $6,482,300 less than Beckham's.

"I hope eventually I'll get a better salary," says Veris, 24, who pays $845 rent each month to live in a three-bedroom Redondo Beach apartment with teammates Alan Gordon (annual salary: $30,870) and Gavin Glinton ($50,000). "We all pretty much struggle from check to check, so I try to do as many appearances on the side as I can, and sometimes if I'm running short, I still have to go back to Mom and Dad right now. But I try to look past the money issue and just cherish being able to play with David Beckham. Not many people get to do that."

Beckham will have to endure rash tackles from unpolished defenders and road games on fake-grass fields with gridiron lines. But of all the petri-dish experiments occasioned by his arrival in MLS, the most fascinating will be how one of the world's highest-paid athletes interacts with his teammates in a bargain-basement league. It's an arrangement that will test every bit of Beckham's desire to be just one of the lads, not to mention the chemistry the Galaxy will need to improve its woeful 3-5-4 record at week's end, which placed it fifth in the six-team Western Conference.

"It would be kind of a nice gesture if he came in and just splashed the locker room with cash for some of the younger guys, but I don't think it's going to be a big issue," says forward Landon Donovan, the Galaxy's second-highest-paid player ($900,000). "It'll be interesting to see how he integrates socially into the team. A lot of us hang out together, and when he's invited, will he want to come out? Will he bring the kids? Will he bring Victoria? We're fun to be around, so I think he'll get pulled into that if he wants to."

To Beckham, that sounds . . . ideal. "It's important for me to get to know the players and also for Victoria to get to know the players' wives and girlfriends," he says. In fact, he'd love to reprise the warm atmosphere that he enjoyed at Man United in the mid-1990s, when he and five teammates rose from the youth ranks to the senior team, rather than his comparatively chilly seasons with Real Madrid. "Hopefully when we do move to the U.S., it's going to be more like it was at Manchester, where on Sundays we used to take our sons to one of the other players' houses and have a barbecue," Beckham says. "I'm hoping it's going to be that sort of vibe because it would be great to have that again."

Notes L.A. midfielder Peter Vagenas, "It's amazing how a locker-room environment sort of puts everyone on the same plane." So, of course, will the Galaxy's travel plans, though Beckham and several veteran teammates will sit in first class on commercial flights. (Charters are forbidden by MLS, which claims they provide an unfair competitive advantage.) Other Beckham-related upgrades extend to L.A.'s spiffy new logo and colors (dark blue, yellow and white have replaced green and gold) and to the Home Depot Center, which has a VIP lounge for celebrity fans and an auxiliary press box for a horde that suddenly includes Access Hollywood and the British tabloids.

In the end, though, Beckham's new team will be judged on how it performs on the field, and that means not only winning but also doing so with an attacking style that keeps Americans tuned in. Beckham will move from the right wing (where he played at Real Madrid) to the central midfield to increase his time on the ball and more fully use his superior vision and passing ability. "I've loved playing that position whenever I've been given the chance," says Beckham, who has filled the center on rare occasions with England and United (with varying degrees of success). "You're more involved in the game, and that's what I like to be."

Does the Galaxy have enough talent to take advantage of Beckham's gifts? It's not as if he'll have multiple targets with the pedigree of Real's Ruud van Nistelrooy or England's Michael Owen. But Beckham has long admired Donovan, the U.S.'s best player, and 37-year-old midfielder Cobi Jones, whom he watched play during the 1994 World Cup. As for his other new teammates, Beckham says he spent road trips in Spain during the spring studying their bios and learning about their positions. He accepts that as MLS's highest-paid employee he should aspire to be its preeminent player as well. "I would like to be up there with the best, but who knows?" Beckham says. "We'll have to wait and see. That's what I'll be hoping for—not just to be the best player in the league but for us to be one of the best teams in the league."

If Beckham can kick-start the Galaxy, expect some A-List buzz at the Home Depot Center this summer. Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes got a head start by attending Beckham's title-winning farewell match in Madrid last month, and Beckham expects Cruise will make it to Galaxy games when his schedule allows. "I speak to Tom most days of the week, just chatting about work and the kids and Victoria and Katie," says Beckham, who has three sons, Brooklyn, 8, Romeo, 4, and Cruz, 2. And while Beckham says he won't be joining Cruise as a Scientologist—“He and Katie have their beliefs, and I totally respect that, but me and Victoria have also got our own"—at least one conversion has taken place. "I think Tom's getting into soccer," Beckham says."He'll send me a message after every game that I've played now, and he'll say, What an amazing game!"

David Beckham is only one man. But if the newest American idol can have the same effect on a few million other Yanks, this New World Adventure might just have a chance.