Alex Rodriguez has some wallet envy today. David Beckham—a soccer player!—has been handed $250 million (including endorsements) by the Los Angeles Galaxy of Major League Soccer. That’s as much cash as A-Rod’s contract calls for, but Becks has to labor only five years to Rodriguez’s 10. Even better, Beckham will be doing it in the relative anonymity of MLS, which despite predictions to the contrary still has yet to earn more than minor mentions in the nation’s sports pages. There will be no psychoanalysis in the pages of the country’s foremost sports magazine for Beckham if he goes without scoring for an extended period.
Actually, that’s quite a likely prospect. Beckham’s role has never been that of a scorer, even though his skill at curling free kicks into the far reaches of the net earned him immortality on the movie marquee. Beckham’s game is passing—he has the ability to put the ball on a sprinting teammate’s foot from half a field away.
Now on the dark side of 30, Beckham’s game, dependent as it is on vision and timing, has seen some slippage. Upon taking over the English National Team after the World Cup, Steve McClaren’s first order of business was to strip Beckham of his place on the squad. And this season, Beckham has started for Real Madrid all of five times in 17 matches. In fairness, he was solid in his first two seasons for losGalácticos, but he hasn’t fit into new manager Fabio Capello’s plans.
Since the words 250 and million will be appended to Beckham’s name in virtually every media mention, American fans will likely expect to see a player as dominant as the great Pelé. Forget putting up hat tricks—between his deteriorating skills and the mediocre talent he’ll line up next to, merely getting onto the score sheet might prove a challenge. But even if Beckham does play well, his presence stateside will likely do more harm than good for American footy.
In the simplest terms, soccer in the United States will break through when the country has World Cup success. There was a thrust in the right direction after the quarterfinal appearance in 2002, but then a giant step back last summer in Germany. As I wrote at the time, a huge factor in our poor performance was the lack of players with experience in the harsh fires of European competition.
For this, Major League Soccer is largely to blame. The league is in a difficult situation—they need to develop players to ensure they have a product that’s palatable to a buying public with plenty of entertainment options. At the same time, any player worth watching regularly will want and need to leave for Europe to improve his game, and hopefully, by extension, the national team. MLS, though, has been agnostic about improving the game at the macro level if it means its own product will suffer.
National team coach Bruce Arena fired a few broadsides at MLS after the Germany debacle, saying “we need [American players] playing in more intense games to help develop them mentally, as well as soccerwise.” MLS bigwigs sniped back instead of taking Arena’s words to heart. Commissioner Don Garber called Arena’s comments “ridiculous.” Deputy commissioner Ivan Gazidis said there “was not a shred of evidence” to prove the league’s weakness hurt national performance. But the U.S. team’s weakness under international-style pressure was impossible to miss.
There is little incentive to improve within MLS—not much push from junior-level players on the team, no withering media criticism, few demanding fans. For Beckham, who is as criticized by football fans as he is beloved by gossip columnists, it will probably feel like Eden. But for Americans like Freddy Adu or Clint Dempsey, this kind of pressure-free zone is a drag on what might become superb careers. So, Dempsey is on his way to England, and Adu will almost certainly do likewise soon after he turns 18 this year.
Dempsey and Adu, as two of the best and most recognizable stars in MLS, will be missed by the league’s marketers. Meanwhile, Beckham’s superstar wattage will suck all of the hype that’s available for U.S. soccer into his vacuum. That will hurt the league overall, preventing rising stars like Taylor Twellman and Brian Ching from getting deserving attention. The future of U.S. soccer will be playing in David Beckham’s shadow, while at the same time not getting the immersion in football culture that they will need. Beckham’s presence will be a boon for sellers of Galaxy shirts and for his wife’s flagging entertainment career. But American soccer? Not a chance.