MLS: David Beckham's American Dream Is Over, Where Does the MLS Go from Here?
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Ever since its first season in 1996, attendance had been in a steady decline for two main reasons: The failure of the national team to inspire in a big way, and perhaps most significantly, the lack of truly world-renowned players on offer.
Adjusting the salary cap rules by introducing the 'Beckham Rule' to enable the signing of international stars in 2007 gave Major League Soccer a chance to address this major issue. Teams now had money to throw at household football names and the L.A. Galaxy were first to step up to the plate.
While Beckham was never the best player in the world, his marketability and sex appeal made him a perfect match for a league in desperate need of hype. All of a sudden, the L.A. Galaxy existed to international fans of the game.
More importantly, the MLS existed worldwide.
The league saw this as a major step forward, and it was. Six new franchises have entered the MLS since his arrival, and while he cannot take the lion's share of credit for that, he can take major credit for other players that have followed suit.
Thierry Henry, Alessandro Nesta, Robbie Keane, Marco Di Vaio and Tim Cahill all call the MLS home now. It's hard to picture that reality if Beckham didn't take that first step.
There is something that links all these international stars that have given the MLS a shot, and it is exactly this link that will never allow the MLS to become a world-class league.The MLS will only be considered an option by world-class players once they are at the tail-end of their careers.
Or, if you will, it will only be open to consideration once players realize their skills are better suited for a league that isn't world class. This is because at the club level, a player's ultimate is to play in Europe and win the Champions League. As a result, as long as a world-class player is in his prime, European leagues will have something to offer that the MLS never can.
It makes the development of American players something that can be to the league's own detriment as well. Take Clint Dempsey, for example. He was recently voted US Soccer Male Athlete of the Year for the second year running. He is very much a homegrown talent. Has he chosen to make the MLS a better league?
Of course he hasn't. He's doing what's best for his career and American soccer, but not the MLS. He knows he cannot chase soccer's biggest prizes in the MLS. He knows that the better he becomes, the better his country becomes. He knows his level of play will probably stagnate, or perhaps even regress playing in the MLS.
Herein lies another problem for the MLS.
While English players playing in the English Premier League and Spanish players playing in La Liga are great for both the league and the country's competitiveness, American stars playing in the MLS is only to the benefit of the MLS. United States' soccer will only improve if they have more people playing in the best leagues, which the MLS is not.
Athletes looking to be the best, need to be competing against the best. It is a vital part of player development. It's why players like Tony Parker and Pau Gasol left Europe for the NBA, why Ichiro Suzuki and Yu Darvish left Japanese Baseball for the MLB.
While the NBA and NFL may harbor hopes of one day having a team in London, the MLS will never be a part of UEFA. There is no possible way for them to address this void. Try as it might, at best, the MLS will always be a launching pad for Americans looking to make a mark in world soccer.
For foreign stars, it will be a nice final stop before their careers fade off into the sunset. While David Beckham was definitely successful in establishing the MLS as an option, he's also made it abundantly clear that it can never be anything more.
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