It is an arguable, albeit defensible, position that the most important date in Major League Soccer history to this point was July 13, 2007.
It was on that day that more than 700 accredited media members arrived at Home Depot Centre to witness David Beckham’s official unveiling as a Los Angeles Galaxy player. An agreement between the then 32-year-old and the MLS club had already been reached in January, and over the following six months Galaxy shirt sales would hit a record high.
Interest in the North American top flight peaked as well, and over the next five years part of Major League Soccer’s identity was tied to the fact that it was the league in which David Beckham took his famous free-kicks.
Individual players have always been vital to the continued growth of MLS. While Beckham was obviously the most important, there were others who played important roles as well.
The following slides will reveal a handful of those players, ending—naturally—with Beckham.
For any upstart league, it’s of vital importance to have a handful of players the fans will quickly come to recognize.
Predrag Radosavljevic, better known as Preki, was one of Major League Soccer’s first stars. He was a “MLS original” who scored an impressive 18 goals in the division’s inaugural season of 1996.
The following year he won his first of two MVP awards, and in 2000 he led Kansas City Wizards to an MLS Cup and Supporters’ Shield double.
In 2005, as part of its 10th anniversary celebrations, MLS named an official All-Time Best XI. Preki was included in it, alongside the likes of Brian McBride, Carlos Valderrama and Landon Donovan.
Don’t laugh. Major League Soccer has rarely been in the mainstream and international news as much as it was in November 2003, when Freddy Adu signed with DC United as a 14-year-old.
Or, to put it more accurately, as a supposed 14-year-old, because controversy surrounding his age is part and parcel of the Adu myth.
In 1997 Adu still lived in his home country, Ghana. But after his mother was awarded a Diversity Immigrant Visa his family moved to Rockville, Maryland.
As a 12-year-old, Freddy, whose skill at football was obvious, enrolled in the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida.
And less than two years later he had agreed to a professional contract with DC United.
Adu made his MLS debut on April 3, 2004. Two weeks later he became the league’s youngest-ever goalscorer when he found the back of the net against MetroStars.
It’s absolutely vital for Major League Soccer’s biggest market to have a marquee player in its only professional football team, and Thierry Henry became that player when he joined New York Red Bulls in July 2010.
Now 35 years old, Henry is already participating in his fourth MLS season.
Last term he finished fifth in the scoring race with 15 goals and also contributed 12 assists as New York came third in the Eastern Conference. His 14 goals in 2011 were third-best in MLS, putting him behind Dwayne De Rosario and Chris Wondolowski.
But more important than his goals has been the fact that, with several good years of football left in him, Henry decided to move to MLS. He has given the league another recognizable face.
And the fact he hasn’t dominated the Golden Boot award indicates he came to a division of a decent standard.
No American footballer has ever received the sort of attention reserved for Landon Donovan.
Although his European exploits were mostly disappointing, Donovan is the face of football for many in the United States. He is a player so closely identified with his sport that the weight of it all caused him to take a brief hiatus from it this past winter.
But he’s back with Los Angeles Galaxy, with whom he has won back-to-back MLS Cups. And counting a previous championship with Galaxy and a pair with San Jose Earthquakes he boasts an impressive five league titles on his CV.
With the United States men’s national team he was named the “Best Young Player” at the 2002 World Cup where his side progressed all the way to the quarterfinals. And at the 2010 tournament he heroically pulled the Americans into the knockout stages with a memorable performance against Algeria.
Say what you will about David Beckham—that he never lived up to the hype, or prioritized his loan moves and national team caps ahead of his club side—but the fact remains that his arrival was the single most important phenomenon in MLS history to date.
During his time in L.A., he scored more goals in fewer matches for Los Angeles Galaxy than he did for Real Madrid. And although two of his five seasons with the club were all but wiped out due to injury, he ended on a high in 2012: eight goals in all competitions and winning a second consecutive MLS Cup.
Off the pitch there were the record shirt sales, but attendance also trended consistently upward during his six years on the continent. There were nearly 19,000 fans per match in 2012, putting MLS eighth in attendance worldwide.
MLS also averaged more than a thousand fans per match last season than both the National Hockey League and National Basketball Association.
And NBC’s Sports Network’s regular coverage of the league began during Beckham’s watch.
Now, not every success in Major League Soccer can be attributed to the Beckham factor. But it’s safe to say the league would be in rather different circumstances had he not signed on in 2007.