By Jorge Arangure Jr.
The enduring image of David Beckham’s time in the United States, or at least the most memorable one for a general audience, will be that of a giant underwear billboard ad in Times Square: The Englishman sex symbol cheekily greets tourists in his skivvies.
The problem is that nowhere in that ad is Beckham identified as a soccer player, much less as an MLS or Los Angeles Galaxy player. The star of the ad was not the sport, nor the league, and not even the underwear, but Beckham.
And that was the problem with Beckham’s six-year MLS era, a period in which the soccer star’s individual brand grew exponentially while the league remained stalled in relative obscurity.
For Beckham, the move to MLS was always about Beckham, despite his promises to help the sports grow in the United States. From a personal standpoint, Beckham’s stint in the United States was a phenomenal success. He’s as big a brand as he’s ever been. Yet just how MLS has benefited is not quite clear.
Beckham did little to actively promote the league and the sport, and always seemed only half-committed to being a member of the Galaxy. He once famously eschewed a Galaxy league game to participate in a tribute match in England for one of his former Manchester United teammates. It’s as if Beckham hoped his mere presence would cause a sports cultural revolution. And influence by osmosis seems a dubious strategy.
Beckham always seemed to miss playing in Europe, and each time he seemed more interested in games overseas than in his own league was an insult to those U.S. fans who, famously, bought his replica shirt as soon as he signed. Ultimately Beckham isn’t responsible for the state of soccer in the United States, but he probably shouldn’t have indicated that he wanted to become part of a movement if he wasn’t totally dedicated to it.
The irony is that the sport is as popular as its ever been in the United States. The recent astronomically large sums of money handed out for the TV rights to the English Premier League, not to mention the creation of Univision’s sports-only channel, which primarily televises Latin American soccer, shows a positive tilt in popularity for the long-maligned sport. The country’s demographics are changing to soccer’s benefit.
But only MLS has failed to see that unprecedented growth, at least in comparison to non-domestic leagues. Beckham was supposed to help MLS become part of the national conversation. Instead, MLS is as regional a league as it’s ever been. The league can justly crow about rising attendance figures -- numbers that now eclipse those of France’s Ligue 1 -- yet national TV ratings continue to be dismal. Local fans are rabidly interested in their teams; teams like the Seattle Sounders and the Portland Timbers have found immense success by catering to an area audience. The problem for the league is that those Pacific Northwest fans are just not all that interested in watching teams from other cities.
Beckham, with his wildly crossover popularity, didn’t so much create interest in the sport as much as he helped make each game a local attraction. But if your city doesn’t have a team, well, you’re probably not all that interested in MLS.
Having Beckham play in Los Angeles, thereby making the Galaxy the most relevant soccer team in the area, was supposed to energize the Mexican-American community in Southern California. Spanish-speaking kids were supposed to grow up wanting to be like Beckham and play in MLS. His star power was supposed to be transcendent.
Instead, the most talented Mexican-American players still continue to choose playing in Mexico rather than playing in MLS.
Certainly part of the reason is that the pay scale and playing opportunities are likely to be better in the Mexican first division. Still, it almost seems like a slap to MLS’ face that in the Galaxy’s own backyard, two U.S. men’s national team players -- Joe Corona and Edgar Castillo -- play for the Tijuana Xolos, while no prominent Mexican-American U.S. national team players suit up for an American team.
It’s a failure that the league still does not have one marketable Mexican-American player. Curiously, the league has become a haven for Colombian players, but that representation doesn’t quite move the needle among Mexican-Americans, by far the largest Latin American group in the United States.
The opposing argument will be that Beckham helped make MLS relevant, albeit not yet a major American league. His signing, supporters say, helped spur expansion and brought forth the construction of a slew of soccer-only stadiums in places like Kansas City, Houston and New Jersey.
But one could argue that those accomplishments came because MLS eagerly wanted to become a major power. Thy were coming with or without a star player from Europe. Beckham was merely a sign of the league’s ambitions, not the cause of it.
It’s certainly a lot to ask for one player to revolutionize an entire sport. But that’s how MLS advertised Beckham’s signing, and it’s fair to point out he didn’t quite live up to the hype off the field, even though his last few years on the field -- including an L.A. championship -- have justified the signing strictly from a playing standpoint. But it was never really about Beckham’s effect on the field … and he didn’t have much of an effect there, either, beyond his own success.
Competitively, MLS still lags far behind the Mexican League in quality and strength of play, let alone the big European leagues. The Mexican first division continues to dominate the CONCACAF Champions League, a sign of its superiority despite the progress made by MLS. The average American fan, the one that still needs to be convinced about soccer, isn’t likely to stomach a league that not only isn’t the best in the world, but isn’t even the best league in its own continent.
The biggest long-term problem of the Beckham era is that his presence exacerbated the league’s identity problem. Is MLS a league for aging foreign stars like Beckham? Or will it be a showcase for America’s best players? The continued signing and courting of past-their-prime foreign players shows the league still doesn’t know what it wants to be or whether it feels it can survive solely on homegrown talent.
This of course doesn’t meant that MLS isn’t worth watching, that the league won’t continue to grow or that it won’t one day eclipse the Mexican league. But ultimately, the league’s fate won’t have come about because of Beckham. When we look back at the Beckham era five or 10 years from now we’ll simply remember it as a blip in America’s soccer history, as substantive and impactful as an underwear ad in Times Square.
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Arangure has been a baseball writer since 2003. He has worked as a senior writer for ESPN and The Washington Post. He's still looking for a Mexican restaurant in New York City that's as good as something from his hometowns of Tijuana/San Diego. He doesn't think he'll find one.