Beckham did what he could to change the game

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 host Piers 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.

9 comments about "Beckham did what he could to change the game".
  1. Kent James, May 17, 2013 at 7:17 p.m.

    I was not initially a Beckham fan, and I certainly care more about what a player does on the field than how many jerseys he sells, but watching his career, I've certainly come to appreciate the qualities he brings to the game. I think people have had trouble giving him the credit he deserves for anything other than his free kicks. While he was somewhat rash as a youngster (I recall a red card during a WC game against Argentina, if memory serves), he's certainly matured. I respect that he clearly does not play for the money, he seems to genuinely enjoy playing. He's also smart enough (that maturity thing) to realize that he should quit while he's ahead, even as I thought he might have done that a few years ago. His work ethic, professionalism, and desire to play gave him a few more solid years. And it was nice that he could go back to places like AC Milan to prove that he didn't go to the MLS because he couldn't play at the top level anymore (giving the MLS a bit of a credibility boost). I also respect that he's stayed married to his "pop star wife", and seems like a responsible father. He's certainly done a lot of good for the game in the US. He's always been entertaining, and usually for good reasons...

  2. Allan Lindh, May 17, 2013 at 7:18 p.m.

    I played in an adult league with a Persian gentleman in his 60's who couldn't run at all. But his trapping, passing and vision made him the best player on the field. Beck's wasn't quite to that point yet, but watching him with AC Milan, it seemed clear to me that it was his intelligence and vision that set him apart. He knew where everyone on the field was all the time. Where they were, where the defenders were, where they were moving, where the available space ahead of them was. When he received the ball, he didn't have to look, or think, his feet already knew where the ball was going. No coincidence that Pato faded away at AC Milan after Beckham left. I see no one in the game today that combines his passing skill with his intelligence and vision.

  3. Vince Leone, May 17, 2013 at 7:29 p.m.

    Mr. Lindh:

    Re "I see no one in the game today that combines his passing skill with his intelligence and vision."

    Maybe you've heard of Xavi Hernandez, Andrea Pirlo, Xabi Alonzo...?

  4. Jacob Wang, May 17, 2013 at 9:20 p.m.

    Wonder what Van Pelt thought of Tiger Woods' impact on golf (his beat)

  5. Allan Lindh, May 17, 2013 at 9:25 p.m.

    Mr. Leone
    I agree, all those gentlemen are excellent with the ball, but I remember seeing Beckham receive the ball in his half of the field, and without looking up, deliver the ball to Pato's foot in the opponents box, when he began his run at midfield before Beckham even had the ball. Beckham's head was always on a swivel, surveying the entire field when he didn't have the ball. I don't see that from anyone else, nor do I see his accuracy at 40-50 yds. Messi always seems to know where everyone is, all the great one's do. But I don't know of anyone today who combines that with pinpoint precision at 40-50 yds. But we are comparing great players, all of them. For my money Beckham was in that class, and had greater range. And Xabi Alonzo is a bit of a thug.

  6. Kent James, May 18, 2013 at 11:47 a.m.

    Allan, I agree that Beckham's passing (not just his crosses) are what stand him apart. The accuracy and vision of his long passes are unsurpassed. Although many people decry the long pass as "route one football" (I'm talking to you Paul Gardner...), an accurate 60 yard pass onto a streaking wingers foot that slices open the defense is a sight to behold, and deserves placement in the pantheon of great soccer plays (as does the swerving driven ball that avoids the defender but connects with the foward just on the other side of the defender).

  7. Alex G. Sicre, May 18, 2013 at 2:49 p.m.

    David Beckham deserves all of the positive comments from all of you that I share, and will miss him from the game. Viva Beckham.

  8. Karl Ortmertl, May 18, 2013 at 8:19 p.m.

    The sport in the US didn't soar due to Beckham's presence on the Galaxy, but it did progress very nicely while he was here and, I believe, a lot of that progress was due to the fact that Beckham was here as a base for that progress. Altho' there is no one available with his stature to the MLS, US soccer needs some more players other than Henry and Keane to keep the progress going. The MLS will need to spend the money they spent on Beckham to make money. And, I'd spend on creative offense players like Beckham. Kaka comes to mind as someone I would definitely want to bring in. Too bad Drogba chose China, he would have been great for the MLS. How about Rooney? It's time to think a little bigger to enable to grow the sport even more. The money spent on Beckham turned out to be money extremely well spent

  9. Ivan Mark Radhakrishnan, May 20, 2013 at 3:38 a.m.

    David Beckham's VALUE to Soccer will be determined by WHAT HAPPENED NEXT! “glorified pub football,” CNN host Piers Morgan labeled the league last year!

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