By J Hutcherson - WASHINGTON, DC (Nov 20, 2012) US Soccer Players – Is it possible to discuss David Beckham without making it about the whole of Major League Soccer? It's tough to argue that there's any separation between Beckham's tenure in MLS and the League's steps forward, but is it fair? We've all read the quotes from club and League officials crediting Beckham with reorienting professional soccer's scope in North America alongside his own statements that cast joining the Los Angeles Galaxy as about significantly more than just winning MLS Cups.
Beckham's entry into this League became a statement of commitment that things would change. Again, if we're being fair, this was more a statement of recommitment for what the League promised from the outset. After all, the original intent was player development aligned with bringing in enough established talent to provide a new soccer league credibility. Had some of those earlier signings worked better in practice than they did in theory, we're describing a different league than the one we got by the mid-2000's.
MLS misstepped, badly enough that now even the main actors will talk about how the League itself was in peril in the era of contraction. Now, there are probably more MLS fans with no firsthand knowledge of the bad old days than do. Expansion added fans and marquee players added a higher profile. The League changed, and though some might question the direction there's no denying the difference.
Placing Beckham in the center of that transformation is probably more fair than unfair. Though the gloss he brought to MLS started to erode with the loan move to Milan, that was a discussion among the most committed fans. The difference between that group and the massive MLS regular season crowds showing up just to get a look at a true superstar is the difference between that troubled league and the one now talking about a 20th club.
Too much? Am I falling for that same line repeated so often it has to be true? The one that credits LA as the true visionaries in this League, taking the steps to instill that superstardom that's the difference for any lasting mainstream appeal in a crowded North American sports marketplace? Maybe, but I'm ok with that. Downplaying Beckham requires a rewrite that takes away too much. It re-crafts the MLS story in a way that frankly is less believable than the influence of one marquee player.
It flatters the League and front offices to argue that progress was already happening by the mid 2000's and a newfound internal inertia was pushing the League out of a rough period. Certainly if we're talking about the kind of progress that ends up with a 19-team circuit and salvaged clubs in once struggling markets. What changed was expectation and belief in the product across those markets, and that needs one ownership going all in by MLS standards.
The League’s true believers float a silly statistic. MLS outdraws the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League on average. What that leaves out is percentage of capacity sold and the number of games on the schedule. Both of those items are higher for the arena sports, along with their television deals, salaries, and place in the market as the elite league in their sports. MLS prefers the less scrutinized version, using it as evidence that things are on the up. As they should, since it puts the League in conversation with ones where they don't have a lot in common. It's smart business for a League still in its growth stage 17 seasons later. So is having NBA broadcasts show an MLS player sitting courtside and everyone knowing who he is.
Beckham's role in this growth is undeniable. Along with expansion, the rise of the designated player are the solid indications that things can and will change in MLS. Sure, silly rules designed to limit losses at the expense of competition hamper teams. There's not enough individual control of clubs to set their own destinies potentially at the expense of other teams. All are steps whether or not the League wants to admit they're necessary for a fully established professional sports league.
Yet, for anyone on that long ago and hastily arranged post-holiday conference call where Major League Soccer's commissioner announced that two teams were officially out of business, there's no good argument against a period of sustained success. No one should expect it to be a success that covers all flaws, problems, and eventualities. We know there are teams in this league in trouble at the gate and on the field. We know some brands are significantly stronger than others. We can see that the standings and postseason success don’t necessarily demonstrate the sharp distinction between success and failure.
All of that is part of growth, true for every league in North America. So is the need for the transitional superstar.
J Hutcherson has been writing about soccer since 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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