By Ridge Mahoney
To ridicule Major League Soccer, an ESPN Radio pundit last year also took a swipe at David Beckham.
Scott Van Pelt said on his daily program last year something along the lines that MLS needs publicity, so it should sign David Beckham. A disdainful remark, tossed out by a talk-show host ensconced in his own world, in many ways encapsulates the Beckham in America Era.
In reviewing the reviews of Beckham’s career and reading the comments thereof, you can’t come close to a consensus. Incongruity abounds. That his celebrity outstripped his ability is obvious, yet as an MLS player he set England’s all-time cap mark of 115. His popularity supposedly burned out quickly, though somehow the league grew from 12 to 19 teams during his tenure. On his last legs -- why else would he come to America? -- when he arrived at age 31, he nonetheless played well for AC Milan while on loan.
That Beckham drew attention and exposure to the Galaxy and MLS that never could have been attained otherwise is unquestioned. The blockbuster announcement in January 2007, that he would leave legendary Spanish club Real Madrid splashed his face onto screens and pages throughout the United States as well as around the world. During his six MLS seasons, he sold hundreds of thousands of jerseys, boosted attendances and TV ratings, and helped the Galaxy reach three MLS Cups and win two of them.
Yet large swaths of the U.S. sports world remained indifferent, or worse. Those hostile took aim at a new target, the impossibly handsome icon with the plastic-princess, pop-star wife, and him playing “glorified pub football,” as CNN hostPiers Morgan labeled the league last year. Morgan took a lot of heat for the absurdity of that remark, as well he should have, for the class and quality displayed by Beckham defined what the league had become: certainly not great, but genuine.
Like the creations of any artist, what Beckham accomplished in America, or didn’t, is in the eye of the beholder. Another accomplished crosser, former U.S. international Eddie Lewis, marveled at the array of whip and swerve and spin he applied to the ball. A specialist par extraordinaire, Beckham’s deliveries seemed detached from gravity, their defiant trajectories difficult to defend and breathtaking to behold.
As he did for the clubs he played for, Beckham filled his role. Never the best player for Manchester United, Real Madrid, the Galaxy, AC Milan, England and Paris St. Germain, he fit into different systems preached by different coaches through savvy, intelligence and commitment. As a wide player lacking great speed, he used guile and deception to create the space and time he needed to display his magical touch.
The subtle skills he used prior delivering the jaw-dropping cross often went unnoticed, but were essential to his success and recognized by his coaches and teammates. His tracking and covering were spotty in MLS, but when engaged with the game, he could tuck into spots and find seams as per an international with more than 100 caps to his name.
The game in America would have grown regardless of Beckham but not so dramatically nor so publicly. On the field and off, he played his role as a game-changer. The article detailing his retirement ran on the front page -- not the front sports page, but the front page -- of the New York Times, and while the reasoning of that placement can be debated, it is proof that whatever melding of celebrity and sport and glamour he brought with him, at least some of America bought it.