December 2, 2012
By Charles Cuttone
A fitting exit for David Beckham
David Beckham left Major League Soccer on Saturday as he entered it – amid happy, celebratory chaos, his welcoming press conference and final hoisting of the MLS Cup trophy bookending a sometimes rocky road through the still-developing landscape of American soccer.
Beckham’s numerous injuries, the more serious ones the results of his continued dalliances with playing in Europe on loan in the offseason or his incessant efforts to prolong a flagging National Team career with England, made his presence for Galaxy fans sometimes seem more like an unwanted occupation than a celebration, indeed almost at one point leading to an on-field altercation with a fan.
But over the course of six years, that changed. Beckham got comfortable in LA, his comings and goings into other MLS markets lost their circus atmosphere, and the Galaxy once again became winners, making three trips to MLS Cup in the last four years, and now winning two straight.
The Galaxy’s 3-1 win over the Houston Dynamo on Saturday brought a happy ending for the Galaxy star and the team’s fans, hearkening back some 35 years when another superstar Pele left the North American Soccer League after the Cosmos’ 2-1 triumph over the Seattle Sounders in Portland, in what is now Jeld-Wen Field, home of the latest incarnation of the Portland Timbers.
The endings were very similar, as were the beginnings, but the stories have very different paths, both on the field and off.
Both players were global stars signed to help grow the sport in the United States, even if Beckham was more a transcendent brand than the transcendent player that was Pele. Both played crucial roles in US soccer evolution. Pele planted the seed for what the sport has become in this country. Back in 1975, there was a struggling league and little else. Now millions play the sport, the U.S. has hosted a World Cup and qualified for every one since 1990 after a 40-year drought, and it’s likely none of that would have happened were it not for the Brazilian with the eternal smile.
Earlier this week MLS Commissioner Don Garber said the league “needed” David Beckham when he signed with the Galaxy on that January day six years ago. Probably so. But at that point, the league needed Beckham more than the sport in the U.S. did. At that time, MLS was barely a decade old and still struggling to put down roots on the sporting landscape in this country. Where Pele showed the country that the game could be beautiful, Beckham brought buzz, relevance and commercial credibility.
Before Beckham arrived, the league already had turned the corner in stemming its early losses, had already seen the construction of a handful of soccer stadiums, notably Columbus Crew Stadium, the Home Depot Center, Toyota Park and BMO Field, and was beginning to attract new investors, diversifying its ownership from the well-heeled and committed triumvirate of AEG, the Hunts and the Krafts that had kept things going through ten money-losing seasons.
The league had a dozen teams when Beckham signed, with Toronto already set to join the fold. That number has mushroomed to 19, with a 20th franchise imminent in New York. There are also 14 soccer stadiums, with sparkling new buildings in New York, Philadelphia, Kansas City, and Houston opening in the last three years, and remodeled ones shinning in Portland, Vancouver and Montreal, with still more on the way.
MLS also has a new TV deal with NBC Sports, a booming commercial entity in Soccer United Marketing and competition for increasingly expensive expansion franchises.
Beckham helped the league achieve that level of commercial success quicker than it otherwise would have, so maybe the chants of the Galaxy fans at HDC on Saturday were appropriate. THANK YOU BECKHAM.