In 2007, David Beckham was tasked with putting Major League Soccer on the map of the world’s game, and though he may have regretted making that move at times, he succeeded.
Beckham did not, however, do it alone and many soccer fans in Seattle, Toronto, Portland and Vancouver will disagree – at least partially – that MLS has surged solely because of the Englishman. Since the former Manchester United and Real Madrid player joined the LA Galaxy, MLS has seen an exceptional amount of growth. In 2006, the year before Golden Balls signed his lucrative deal, the league consisted of a mere 12 teams. That was still only two more than the league possessed in its debut year of 1996.Since then, seven teams have joined MLS and soccer as we know it has spread across North America; at least in the cities that house league teams.
Beckham’s departure came at the right time for both player and league. MLS is not and most likely will not be one of the premier soccer leagues in the world. But as long as the league’s brain-trust understands what its product is, the league can thrive. And rather than trying to be the best league in the world, Don Garber and company should focus on being the best league in North America first. Most soccer fans, pundits and players still rate Mexico’s Liga MX as the top league on the continent and once MLS bests its Southern neighbor, then it can look towards topping Europe.
But what has MLS truly lost with Beckham’s departure? On the field, the LA Galaxy has lost an aging midfielder, while off it, the team and league have lost a marquee name that still brought people into the stadium. Whether fans of soccer or not, people wanted to see Beckham play and more times than not, to root against the Galaxy. Of course, there will be a fall-off from the causal fans and unfortunately MLS seems to be a league dominated by the casual fan, which could see attendances drop in some markets in 2013. Casual fan or not, the Galaxy became a team despised around the league and the team’s fixtures – home or away – were big sellers. That interest will hopefully be there in 2013, and fans will find another player to loath.
Yet the good news is, compared to pre-Beckham MLS, the league is in a much stronger all-around place. Financially, MLS has never been better and part of that comes from the revenue generated by 12 soccer specific stadiums. Something the MLS of 1996 could only dream of. There’s also the improved quality of play in the league and the draw of higher quality foreign talent. The league now has former UEFA Champions League winners and World Cup winners scattered about the league, and with continued growth more could arrive in the coming years.
The league has lost that name or brand: Brand Beckham. It is a name that, other than Lionel Messi, is one that cannot be topped not only in soccer, but in all of sports right now. But the memory will resonate for some time. The next moves the league make will be crucial in sustaining that momentum that occurred during the midfielders six-years with the Galaxy.
MLS is about to go through both a scary and exciting time. Its marquee foreign name is gone, but everything is in place for MLS to continue its rise.
Follow Drew Farmer on Twitter @Calciofarmer. Drew is a senior writer for Forza Italian Football where he covers Genoa and he hosts the website’s Club Focus Podcast.