The hype around David Beckham’s arrival in Los Angeles is far greater than I anticipated in the mainstream American media. It seems the celebrity of Beckham is trumping the actual analysis of what this does for the football on the MLS pitch. In its simplicity and ignorance, the American media has decided to compare Beckham’s arrival to that of Pele’ in 1975. In no way shape or form is this signing by MLS similar to the signing by the Cosmos of Pele’, claiming they both arrived on American soil as “saviors” of the game in this country.
For starters in 1975, the US hardly was able to field a national team, and had not sniffed World Cup qualification in a quarter century. Now in 2007, the US are regulars at every major international event FIFA hosts, and in fact team USA boasts the fifth longest streak for consecutive World Cup Finals appearances in the world. In 1975, the game did not exist in any form on television in the US . Fast forward to 2007, and you have two 24 hour channels based in the US whose entire programming is dedicated to the beautiful game in addition to countless other matches of both international competitions and the domestic league on mainstream cable channels. In other words, American soccer doesn’t need a “savior” as the media portrays. Lastly, Pele? is the greatest player to ever play the game. While David Beckham is certainly a world class set piece taker, he isn’t the sort of football player average Americans ignorant of the sport understand. You need to appreciate the game to appreciate David Beckham as a footballer. Pele? on the other hand transcended the sport and was easily admired by all.
Major League Soccer is well established league unlike the NASL in 1975, even if some of MLS’ business practices are somewhat peculiar for the tastes of international football fans like myself. However, MLS has an existing business model that has worked well, and while Beckham enhances that product from a financial standpoint, other questions remain. Contrary to the opinions of some in the British press, the league has had its fair share of top international players in the past. What David Beckham does to improve the quality of play MLS, which is the stated goal of Commissioner Don Garber, is subject to debate. In the history of MLS, no single player with the possible exception of a highly under rated Canadian named Dwayne DeRosario has single handedly shifted the balance of power within the league. This is a league that has had such international stars as Carlos Valderamma, Marco Ethcheverry, Lothar Matthaus, Luis Hernandez, Roberto Donadoni, Hugo Sanchez, Branco, Carlos Hermosillo, and Yourri Djorkaeef. True, some of the above mentioned players were near the ends of their career when they came to MLS, but their quality cannot be questioned. In addition future European based international players such as Shaun Bartlett, Simon Elliot, Junior Agogo, Ryan Nelson and Stern John spent the formative years of their career in MLS. I will admit however, that MLS took a definitive step away from spending on big name international players in 2002. It is no coincidence that at the very same time young American national team players like DaMarcus Beasley and Bobby Convey began looking for their first ticket out of the league as well. MLS has now corrected that error and thus the level of play has once again reached the standard of the 1996 to 2000 time period, which was the best in league history. (From 1997 to 2000, MLS clubs played in the finals of five international club competitions. Since 2001, MLS clubs have played in NONE).
As I have stated on many occasions recently, Beckham is now playing for one of the worst run franchises in the history of MLS. Since the untimely death of Doug Hamilton, the former GM of the Galaxy (and of the Miami Fusion) in a plane crash last year, the Galaxy have turned over its entire roster save four players and have already dumped a number of players they brought to the squad in the last year. Last season was the first time in club history they failed to reach the MLS Playoffs, and despite the acquisition of a world class midfielder, I have my doubts they will reach the playoffs this season.
While I’m excited to see a world class player in person on American soil, the signing of Beckham has been widely overstated on both sides of the pond. American Soccer is well off with or without Beckham in MLS, and Beckham’s arrival doesn’t indicate an upsurge in quality of play in the league either. It’s simply the signing of another top player and indication that after several seasons of curtailing spending on big name players (from 2002 thru 2006), MLS is ready to compete in the international transfer market much as it did from 1996 to 2001.