MLS Will Be Just Fine After David Beckham Hangs Up His American Soccer Boots
The MLS Cup is on Dec. 1 at 4:30 p.m. ET on ESPN for you Americans looking for a footy fix, and the match between the Los Angeles Galaxy and Houston Dynamo has become a secondary storyline to the fact that David Beckham—one of the most famous athletes on the entire planet—is playing his last match in MLS.
The script could not be better for MLS.
The biggest star to play professional soccer on American soil since Pele is competing in his last match, at home, on national television, with a chance to win back-to-back cups for the league's top international brand.
It doesn't hurt, of course, that Beckham isn't alone on the field, most notably lining up alongside American Landon Donovan, widely recognized over his career as the biggest American star in the world.
Notice an important distinction in the paragraph that preceded this: I didn't say Beckham was the best star to play in America since Pele. Heck, I didn't even say Donovan was the best American star in the world (more on that in a minute).
Beckham has shown in his time in MLS that he didn't just come to the United States to go on some sort of world football victory tour. He came here to play, and while his interests off the pitch sometimes precluded him from keeping all his match-day commitments with the Galaxy, as often as not, Beckham made headlines for his play on the field, not just his status as a global celebrity.
Looking back, one has to wonder if Beckham knew the competition would be so fierce in MLS.
Not only is Beckham not even close to the best star to play professional soccer on American soil since Pele, there wasn't a point in his MLS tenure that he was close to the best player on his own team.
Beckham was the league's most visible star, but he was never the best. Ask any soccer pundit who has watched MLS over the last six years, and they will agree. That's not an indictment on Beckham, as the MLS has more talent than most people around the world care to realize.
People expected Beckham to arrive in America and plant a black-and-white hexagonal-patterned flag into the ground, and instantly people in this country would start caring about domestic soccer. Some people look at the Beckham experiment as a failure to reach more Americans; at the very least a disappointing result given the amount of fanfare when he first arrived.
Still, people in the industry knew it wouldn't be that simple, so the idea that Beckham's tenure in America is looked at as underwhelming—or even in some national media circles, a failure—is shortsighted.
Helping fans around the world realize the quality of MLS will be Beckham's greatest gift long after he is gone. Sure, he can still help Los Angeles win two MLS Cups in his final two years in the States, but more than that, Beckham added a sense of intrigue to the league it hadn't yet seen before his arrival.
Beckham's presence didn't immediately change anyone's perception of the quality of MLS like some had suggested, but it did get people around the world to pay more attention to MLS. If it was good enough for guys like Beckham to play—albeit on the downside of his career—maybe it was good enough to check out a game or two on TV.
A funny thing has happened since MLS started playing games in the mid-90s: The league actually got talented.
I'm not one of those American soccer fans (or writers) who will try to convince an international audience that the top teams in MLS can compete with those in the English Premier League. (Though I would make the case that every MLS playoff team would have an easier time avoiding relegation than Queens Park Rangers, that's for sure.)
MLS is not as good as the EPL or La Liga or even Serie A. To be fair, it isn't trying to be. The point is not whether MLS has more talent than the big European leagues, but that MLS has more talent than people in America ever thought it would.
Beckham was a conduit to get people to realize the league is far more stable than anyone gave them credit for. Beckham also made it easier to attract bigger (and, in some cases, more talented) stars to come over to America to play.
Thierry Henry is a bona fide star in MLS, and even if he has lost a step since his days in Europe, he is still one of the great players in the history of the game who decided to lace up his boots on American soil.
The fact that players like Robbie Keane, Tim Cahill and Henry are more consistently starting to choose MLS as their next destination after the big European leagues is an important step for American professional soccer.
The fact that Frank Lampard or Kaka—or both—could be playing in MLS next season is huge. It's a credit to what Beckham was able to accomplish, both on and off the field, that makes that plausible.
When players like Didier Drogba take a money grab to go to China instead of coming to America, moves like that are suddenly being derided in international football communities, like the player took the money instead of trying to hack it in one of the tougher leagues in the world.
Make no mistake: MLS may not feature the most beautiful soccer in the world, but it is no walk in the park. Games are hard-fought and strongly contested. The players care, Beckham included, and while there are still some glaring issues with the product, the league is miles from where it was when Beckham first landed.
Now, speaking of those problems, it's only fair to look ahead to what MLS will be like after Beckham departs. While the future is in good hands, it's interesting to guess whose hands they will actually be in.
Beckham has received all the buzz, but it would come as no surprise if Saturday was also Donovan's last match in MLS as well. The American is destined to go on loan to the EPL again this winter, and he'll have the leverage to force a permanent move out of Los Angeles at some point. That, or he'll just threaten to retire.
Donovan did what most talented Americans are opting not to do in this MLS environment: He stayed. Too many great American players are leaving for more elite leagues, or even lower-tier European leagues with a tie to the UEFA Champions League—something that's good for the future of U.S. soccer, but not necessarily good for the future of MLS.
Sure, the American league can boast that former players are now at top clubs—Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley are two of seemingly dozens of American internationals who got their starts in MLS and are now playing for huge European clubs.
The problem for MLS is figuring out how to keep enough of the American stars to give fans someone to root for here while helping grow the game to an international level that gives the United States a chance to compete at the World Cup level.
MLS needs to worry about its own product, even if sometimes that may come at the detriment of U.S. soccer's development. That's a difficult balance that won't ever change for the league, and it's something most powerhouse international leagues don't have to deal with.
Losing players like Geoff Cameron to the EPL just as he was coming into his own with the USMNT was a tough blow for MLS. It's great for the league to be tied to players like Cameron and to show the league can develop that kind of quality. It's also great that losing a player of Cameron's quality didn't stop Houston from getting back to the MLS Cup, illustrating that there is far more talent around the league than just one or two solid international players.
Still, it doesn't help MLS to drop the moniker of a stepping-stone league when its best domestic players are leaving once they get good enough to do so.
A great shame for MLS is that Chris Wondolowski, this year's MLS MVP, has been lousy in his attempts to play for the national team. MLS needs its stars to not just get picked for international competition, but thrive as well.
Graham Zusi is widely recognized as one of the best players in MLS right now, and his addition to the U.S. national team has come at the right time for everyone. If Zusi stays in America, becomes a staple in the U.S. midfield and makes a 2014 World Cup run, that would do wonders for MLS moving forward.
So too would the re-emergence of strikers like Juan Agudelo or Eddie Johnson, both getting long second looks with the USMNT while playing club ball in MLS.
The list of American stars playing in MLS needs to continue to grow. Having Beckham or Henry or Cahill or Keane or Kaka or Lampard is nice, but having a dynamic American superstar standing beside them in the team photo—in the championship photo—is far more important for the future success of the league.
There is, however, one avenue of talent in MLS that hasn't been addressed, and it may be the most important for MLS as the league strives to grow the game into a legitimate international brand.
If MLS is still seen as a retirement league for Europe's stars and a stepping-stone league for America's next generation, the rosters are filled with players from Central and South America who look at MLS as a destination, not a stop along the way.
MLS has developed a deep and rich talent of players from this side of the globe, both young and old, who see MLS as the league for which to aspire. The level of play in CONCACAF over the last six to eight years has grown exponentially, and MLS has done an excellent job of bringing that talent into the league on a consistent basis.
MLS needs players who want to be here, who strive to make it to this level and who play their hearts out once they are here. The level of play across the league has gotten so much better over the last decade, it's helped the young American players get ready for international competition far sooner than some expected. It's forced the aging international players to keep up with the talent that's coming from growing soccer nations.
All that said, things are not perfect in MLS. The big names seem to be looking at Los Angeles and New York almost exclusively, despite the fact that New York's team still has trouble pulling fans into the stadium. Adding a second MLS team in New York surely won't help fans in Columbus or Kansas City attract top international talent.
In addition, while some markets have become dedicated soccer destinations, others have struggled to get a foothold with a consistent fanbase of support or media attention. Attendance is up in MLS and TV ratings keep getting better, but that hasn't necessarily developed into a larger community footprint.
The league is doing a lot, but it still needs to do more than the other professional leagues in America and around the world to grow organically in the community. The league has gotten people to pay attention. Now it needs to get people to care.
There is more interest in the sport in general in America, and that surely helps the league grow by proxy, but there are still far too many fans in America who look at MLS as an offseason league. Even American fans have more passion for their favorite European clubs than their local MLS teams.
That may change, but only with time. MLS is still a first-generation league, and many American fans were already rooted with a European club team before MLS existed, or certainly before MLS came to their area.
As this next generation of soccer fans in America grows up with the game, MLS needs to target those fans at an early age to get them to care more about their team across the street than their team across the pond. The talent may still be better overseas, but the accessibility and interest shouldn't suffer in America.
Things are better for MLS now than six years ago. David Beckham opened a window for the world to look in and see the quality product MLS has developed. As Beckham departs, it's up to the league to break down the door and start getting more people inside.
Six years ago, MLS needed someone like David Beckham. Now that he's leaving, MLS should be fine without him.
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