Since David Beckham’s move to the U.S. in 2007, Major League Soccer has gained a lot of credibility, both at home and abroad. Some of this is undoubtedly down to the former England captain, but does that make him the most important player MLS has ever seen?
Beckham’s announcement that the MLS Cup Final on December 1 will be his last for LA Galaxy was greeted with surprise. Not as much surprise as when he first announced he would be playing in LA, however.
Leaving Real Madrid at the age of 31 in favour of playing for the Galaxy was greeted with something just short of derision in his home country.
Madrid had offered to extend his contract and he was popular with the supporters—despite the team’s failure to win any trophies during his time at the club—but Beckham had fallen out of favour with then-manager Fabio Capello. Steve McClaren, too, had neglected to include him in his England squad.
Even so, playing football (soccer) in America wasn’t something that anyone expected or respected. A precedent was set in the 1970s when Pele, George Best and Johan Cruyff played in the North American Soccer League, but the common consensus in England was that it was a combination of money and his wife that influenced Beckham’s decision.
While the five-year, $250 million deal would certainly have helped, both Beckham and then-GM Alexi Lalas seemed to consider his main responsibility that of raising the profile of MLS and increasing the popularity of world football across America.
Beckham’s early seasons with the Galaxy were ones of disappointment. Although he had arrived on a tidal wave of hype, he spent a lot of the time either injured or on loan to AC Milan, which was understandably a source of annoyance to Galaxy fans.
The initial interest in the game never went away however, and merchandising levels continued to grow. MLS commissioner Don Garber stated that having Beckham’s name on a Galaxy jersey meant that 300,000 were sold in 2007, which was 700 times the amount the same team sold the year before.
Garber went on to shower praise on Beckham’s impact on the game:
"Merchandise sales overall have gone up two or three times. International TV sales have gone up from next to nothing to distribution in 100 countries, with live games in Asia and Mexico.
Without doubt, MLS has more global awareness than at any other time in our history and has more legitimacy in the United States because of David. Every measure of our business has grown because of him (via The New York Times)."
It’s undeniable that Beckham brought about a sharp increase in MLS’s popularity, whereas serious football fans had previously dismissed it as a second-class league. MLS was—and in some respects still is—a fledgling league, so the endorsement of one of the most popular players of the current era gave it a credence that simply wasn’t there before.
American journalist Sean Wheelock disagrees with the assumption that the current popularity of MLS is down to Beckham alone. When featuring as a guest on the BBC’s world football radio show, Wheelock argued that the growth of the league was inevitable, with or without Beckham:
"The league has grown exponentially but it would have grown anyway. I see a direct link with players like Thierry Henry and Robbie Keane coming over to MLS but I'm not going to buy into the argument that he [Beckham] revolutionised it because the league has been making slow, gradual climbs forward (via BBC.co.uk)."
The inclusion of the words “slow” and “gradual” hinder Wheelock’s point, however. Beckham’s arrival gave the league a shot in the arm, and more people were drawn to it as a result.
When it was reported last week that the Galaxy had landed a 10-year, $55 million deal with Time Warner Cable, AEG President Tim Leiweke stated that “It's a major deal for our team and I'm telling you it never happens without David Beckham” (via Sporting News).
Over the last couple of seasons, Beckham has thrown himself into his Galaxy role and the team has flourished. He won the MLS Cup last season and was voted the MLS Comeback Player of the Year and named to the league’s Best XI.
Of course, it’s arguable that he only did this after it was clear he would no longer be featuring in the England setup, regardless of whether he was loaned out to more traditionally credible teams like Milan.
His commitment to the team was questioned through 2009-10 as he seemed to quit on the Galaxy in favour of one last shot at international glory, right when they needed him the most.
It’s always been known that the Beckham name became a brand while he was at Manchester United, and a move to America gave him the brand expansion that he wished for. Even if they didn’t know anything about his profession, the culture of celebrity in L.A. ensured that everyone at least knew who he was.
However, to cite that as his motivating reason is slightly cynical. The last two years have shown that L.A. is not just a paycheck for Beckham, and his team is in real contention for a championship this year, as well as the MLS Cup final that serves as his swansong.
As Wheelock pointed out, the influx of Premier League players to MLS is due to the credibility Beckham brought to the league, and he deserves an enormous amount of credit for that.
While it’s true that the increasing popularity of world football across America predated Beckham, no other player has done as much as him for bringing MLS to the attention of the rest of the world. For that fact alone, he is the league’s most important player ever.