The signing of David Beckham by the Los Angeles Galaxy was surrounded by a lot of hype in the United States. For a brief moment, it even made the rest of the world focus their attention on MLS. This sort of attention is unheard of in the world of American football, and it provided MLS with a welcome, albeit brief, boost in publicity and cash flow.
My, how quickly the fan perception has changed.
After only a season and a half, the general consensus among American fans seems to be that the Beckham experiment has been a failure. The negative perception attached to the league has returned and attendance figures are no longer receiving the the "Beckham boost" that was expected immediately after his signing. What's going on?
American fans seem to have some misconceptions about Beckham. He was expected to be something that he's not, and contribute in ways that he never has before. MLS has never had an athlete of his stature before so every loss suffered by the Galaxy has been put under a high-powered microscope.
The judgement that has been passed on Beckham in America is unfair, and it's time to clear things up.
Myth No. 1: David Beckham was signed to be the "savior" of MLS
Fans who hold this belief tend to be old enough to remember Pele's arrival in the US, as a member of the NASL's New York Cosmos. Pele's signing was backed by Warner Studios and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Beckham's signing pales in comparison to this.
Pele was (and still is) a global icon, who had the power to stop war. He was signed to save the NASL from certain doom. He was supposed to raise attendances across the league, raise awareness of the game across the country, and bring in buckets of cash to the struggling league.
This proved to be a tall order, even for one of the all-time greats. He did manage to raise attendances in games in which the Cosmos were involved, raise awareness of the game in NASL cities, and bring in a decent amount of cash to New York. It's fair to say that his presence had a big regional influence, but fell short of increasing football's presence on the national stage.
To make a long story short, Pele did not save the NASL from doom, he only delayed the inevitable.
Beckham's signing was a different story. MLS was already on fairly stable ground with its TV deals, soccer-specific stadiums and interest in expansion. The league didn't need Beckham to stay afloat, so they had the luxury of bringing him in to help contribute as a player.
Beckham himself would agree with that assessment: "I'm coming there not to be a superstar. I'm coming there to be part of the team, to work hard and to hopefully win things. With me, it's about football. I'm coming there to make a difference. I'm coming there to play football.
"I'm not saying me coming over to the States is going to make soccer the biggest sport in America. That would be difficult to achieve. Baseball, basketball, American football, they've been around. But I wouldn't be doing this if I didn't think I could make a difference," he told ESPN in January 2007.
He's a footballer first and an ambassador for the game second. That's one of the qualities in him that I admire most. He wants to win above all else, and let his talent and desire to win spread interest on their own.
Beckham is not here to save MLS, he's here to win.
Myth No. 2: Beckham is a goalscoring, offensive machine
We Americans love a good offense. Who are our most beloved sporting figures of years past? Michael Jordan, Dan Marino, Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Jerry Rice, to name a few. All offense, all the time.
Those fans without a solid understanding of the game of football or Beckham's particular skill set most likely thought that his immense international fame was a result of some spectacular offensive prowess.
Pouring in goals like Romario is not Beckham's game. He's more John Stockton than Michael Jordan, a brilliant distributor of the ball who can score when called upon. His game is setting up teammates with precision passes and long balls. The Galaxy's offense runs a lot more smoothly when Beckham is involved even though his contributions don't always show up in the stat sheet.
He can hurt you on the set pieces, but his real damage is done when passing the ball. He had a team-high 10 assists this season compared to five goals. His contributions helped Los Angeles score five more goals as a team than the best team in MLS this season, the Columbus Crew.
"I've always said my game is about getting assists. It was great for Landon (Donovan) to get two goals," Beckham told the Associated Press after Los Angeles drew with Houston 2-2 earlier in the season.
I'll always be puzzled by how Americans treat the score of football matches. A 2-1 match is "boring", while a baseball game that ends 2-1 is "an exciting pitcher's duel." If we learn to appreciate the beautiful pass, we will learn to appreciate Beckham.
Myth No. 3: Beckham should be able to single-handedly turn around the Galaxy's fortunes
When Beckham first arrived in Los Angeles, after Real Madrid's season wrapped up in 2007, LA and their fans hoped that he would be able to lead them to the playoffs. By now it should be obvious that LA's problems run too deep for just one man to fix. It's very tough to win when you have no defense and an incompetent front office.
Basically, LA was a three-man team for the past two seasons. Edson Buddle, Donovan, and Beckham are not enough to win games on their own, not when most of the rest of their teammates were so hopelessly overwhelmed and overmatched in MLS (Abel Xavier, anyone?)
Pele in his prime would not have been enough to take that Galaxy team to the playoffs without some help.
What's the verdict?
Beckham needs to be surrounded with talented pieces in order to be successful. Donovan and Buddle were the only two players on the Galaxy roster talented enough to consistently benefit from Beckham's passing game. With Donovan likely on his way out of the country for the next season, Beckham will only suffer more if LA can't find a suitable replacement.
Fans also need to hold more realistic expectations for MLS' biggest name. He won't single-handedly revolutionize American football, he won't bring the Galaxy to the playoffs by himself, and he won't sell out every MLS stadium during every matchday. He will be a good player for the Galaxy who can be a good contributor if a good team is in place.
Beckham isn't a failed experiment, he's the victim of unrealistic expectations and a poor team.