Beckham's decision a huge win for MLS

Beckham's decision a huge win for MLS

Published Jan. 18, 2012 12:00 a.m. ET

It was nearly five years ago when David Beckham stood in a shiny suit at Home Depot Center, basking in the California sun, ushering a new era in Major League Soccer as confetti rained down at the announcement of his signing with LA Galaxy. The most famous soccer player in the world, Beckham was coming to America to help raise the sport’s profile. Whether fair or not, Beckham was expected to change the fortunes of American soccer in five years, assuming he stayed that long.

Beckham stayed all five years of his contract, but instead of changing American soccer, it was he who ultimately wound up changing. After his five seasons in MLS and five years living in Los Angeles, Beckham’s priorities changed. He went from being the biggest human billboard in sports, a player who’s career seemed driven by marketing dollars, to being a family man who reveled in the simple life LA allowed him to live; as simple a life as you can have being David Beckham.

Beckham could have left the Galaxy and MLS and earned mega millions playing for Paris Saint-Germain this winter, and it’s safe to assume that the Beckham who wore that shiny suit five years ago would have jumped at that chance. Not the new Beckham. Not the Beckham forged over a five-year roller coaster ride that helped change his priorities and helped him make MLS his home. He signed a new two-year contract with the Galaxy this week, providing the clearest evidence to date that his pilgrimage to the United States has stopped being about brand Beckha, and is now about continuing to enjoy life and soccer in the United States with his family.

“I’ve seen first-hand how popular soccer is now in the (United) States and I’m as committed as ever to growing the game here,” Beckham said. “My family and I are incredibly happy and settled in America and we look forward to spending many more years here.”


Ready for more: David Beckham's impressive form helped the LA Galaxy lift the MLS title in 2011. (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)  

It would have been difficult to imagine things turning out this way, with Beckham leading the Galaxy to a title and pledging his future to LA and MLS. As recently as two and a half years ago - the mid-point of Beckham’s original MLS contract - he was booed by Galaxy fans who questioned his loyalty after two disappointing seasons and a loan move to AC Milan caused him to miss the first half of the 2009 season. He had played well at times, but wasn’t as dominant as he was expected to be. He wasn’t the first big-name star to come to MLS and struggle, but he was certainly the biggest. With his loans to AC Milan, it seemed that MLS wasn't a high priority for Beckham.

Beckham was dubbed a traitor, a judas, for seemingly still keeping an eye on Europe, and still thirsting for England national team call-ups despite his advancing age and commitments in MLS. The tide eventually turned in Beckham’s favor among Galaxy fans, largely in part because of the team’s turnaround from laughing-stock to league power under head coach Bruce Arena. Even when Beckham suffered a torn Achilles during a second loan with AC Milan, Galaxy fans were too busy enjoying their team’s success to criticize Beckham too much.

He returned in 2011 and had the kind of year he absolutely had to have if his time in MLS was going to be seen as anything but a disappointment. He stayed healthy, played a complete season (meaning no loans to Europe), and played at a very high level, the best soccer he ever played during his time in MLS. He gutted through injuries and even limped through the Galaxy’s MLS Cup-clinching victory against Houston in November. He celebrated wildly with his teammates, and couldn’t stop talking about how great the moment felt. It didn’t matter that he had won titles in England and Spain. Lifting an MLS Cup after five tumultuous years felt like as sweet a triumph as any of the previous titles because of all that had led up to it.

It really would have been the perfect ending to Beckham’s time in MLS, at least the kind of ending he would have certainly been happy to see play out when he first began this voyage. Things changed along the way though. His family grew to love living in Los Angeles, as did Beckham, and he found himself playing in a league that has improved considerably since he first arrived. A league there would be no shame in continuing to play in. A league he had helped grow.

Whether it was simply the case of’ `Family Beckham’ loving LA, or maybe his own realization that he had nothing left to prove in Europe, Beckham decided to stay in MLS, stay in LA, and stay in America. Regardless of the motives, Beckham's decision is a major victory for MLS and American soccer. It shows just how much the league has grown and how much playing in MLS and in America still means to him.

So what now for Beckham? There shouldn’t be any grand proclamations about what the next two years of Beckham in MLS will mean or what they should hope to accomplish. Beckham doesn’t need to “save” MLS or soccer in America. Both are doing just fine.

What Beckham can do now is focus on playing well and continuing to garner attention for MLS around the world and here at home. He showed in 2011 that he can still be one of the best players in the league, and while father time will continue to chip away at his ability and durability, Beckham still has some good soccer left in him.

That is what Beckham’s final two years in MLS, and potentially his final two years as a professional player, should be about. Beckham delivering those beautiful passes, displaying that trademark hustle, helping the Galaxy win more trophies and providing an example for young players to aspire to.

That may not be as glamorous or ambitious as the hype-filled hysteria that surrounded Beckham’s arrival in the United States five years ago, but it is no less important. Beckham was always more of an ambassador for American soccer than a savior. Now he will have two more years to show just how good an ambassador he can be, and just much he has changed during his first five years in MLS.