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MLS doesn't need Beckham to thrive
Only a few short years ago, MLS desperately needed David Beckham's cachet and celebrity to spark interest and investment in its developing league.
As Beckham concludes his six-year spell with Los Angeles after a second consecutive MLS Cup appearance on Saturday, the situation has changed dramatically, according to MLS commissioner Don Garber.
“We needed David Beckham in 2007 to help drive our credibility, to help grow our popularity and to show the world, really, that the United States and Canada – which just came [into the league] in 2007 – were ready to support a division one league at the levels it could be supported around the world,” Garber said during his annual State of the League conference call on Monday. “We don't need anything today to get us to the next level.”
Consolidation at this currently promising stage probably ranks higher on the list of immediate objectives. That said Beckham's departure and Landon Donovan's uncertain future have created some waves within the league's star structure. Those players’ decisions will not alter the course of the league at this juncture, but they will impact how the league uses top players to establish its credentials. In the post-Beckham era, MLS must still find a way to amplify its appeal and attract a broader base of supporters. There are skeptics, and MLS has a tough task at hand in increasing interest in a very crowded American sports spectrum.
Even though his presence is not as essential to the cause as it once was, Donovan remains an integral part of that calculus moving forward. He cuts across most boundaries with his popular appeal. He carries massive symbolic value because he largely shunned lucrative overtures from the European game. His career decisions inspire remarkable consternation and debate in the soccer community, but there is little doubt about his importance to MLS as one of the few established and instantly recognizable stars already in the fold.
And it is telling that Garber said he hopes to spend some time with Donovan soon – to learn more about whether the 30-year-old will continue with the Galaxy next season.
“I sympathize with what he is experiencing, trying to soul-search and see what the future may hold on and off the field,” Garber said. “I think, unfortunately for Landon, even more so than the [Michael] Jordans and the [Wayne] Gretzkys of the world – or the [Lionel] Messis of the world – is that Landon not only had to be a great player, but Landon also carried a lot of the promotional burden of growing the sport for a decade or more on his shoulders. He played during the day and had to promote it at night. And that's tiring.”
If Donovan joins Beckham in the exit queue, then MLS must find a way to shift the focus toward the league's strengths. Attendance continues to increase from year to year. Montréal joined the league for the 2012 campaign and settled well enough in its first top-flight season. The modest salary structure continues to tempt well-heeled investors with an eye toward the future with the protections it affords. The potential arrival of a second New York franchise by 2016 – a date Garber contends is a realistic one – could spark a bidding war if a stadium deal is eventually secured in Queens.
All of those moves must ultimately contribute to initiatives designed to improve the overall standard of play. MLS has to improve on the field, and league officials know it. Garber said clubs plunge approximately $20 million a year into academies designed to cultivate young talent and advanced scouting initiatives in Asia, Central America and South America are mining foreign lands for reasonably priced additions.
Designated Players continue to join clubs to bolster the talent at the top end, but Garber said the league currently has no plans to expand the rule to further those efforts. Measures to strengthen the efforts to retain young players developed in MLS – players like reported Wigan signing Roger Espinoza and out-of-contract defenders Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez – as their contracts expire remain in the conceptual stage as well, Garber said.
But a shift in focus toward these internal concerns as Beckham departs signifies the growth of the league. Beckham currently possesses an option to purchase a franchise in any market outside of New York City, according to Garber, an arrangement that benefits both parties. Yet the former Manchester United star’s contributions to the cause have advanced MLS to a point where its fortunes do not hinge on one or two men to carry it forward.
That doesn’t mean MLS isn’t going to hire another European star – in fact many former Premier League names are currently rumored to be joining the league in the coming transfer window. But that star, no matter how big or bright, will no longer dictate the rise and fall of the league's fortunes. The league’s ability to carve a path without relying on Beckham or Donovan is, in fact, those men’s legacy.
The truth, despite the skeptics, is that MLS’s future looks far brighter than it did when the former England captain embarked on his quest to build soccer in America six years ago.
Kyle McCarthy writes about the beautiful game for FOX Soccer, the Boston Herald and several other publications. Follow him on Twitter @kylejmccarthy.
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