Beckham a cog in American Soccer’s growth

Beckham a cog in American Soccer’s growth

Published Jan. 19, 2012 3:52 p.m. ET

LOS ANGELES – When looking at the accomplishments David Beckham has forged in a Los Angeles Galaxy jersey, it seems to be a microcosm of the entire growth of the brand of Major League Soccer.

Five years into his 32.5 million dollar contract signed with MLS in 2007, the results of his and the league’s labors began to appear more clearly. Winning an MLS Cup with the Galaxy was a perk, as were his MLS career-high 26 regular season appearances. The two goals, 15 assists, four postseason assists last season – all of that was icing on the cake.

While there are those that would argue that playing 74 games spread unevenly over five seasons is hardly a cause to erect a statue of him outside the Home Depot Center, by looking at the larger picture, MLS and Beckham are on the path towards accomplishing what had been set out to do when he was introduced in July 2007. MLS is a much more broadly recognized entity, up seven franchises from the 12 that existed when the star midfielder arrived. With the Cascadia Cup driving additional fandom in the packed stadiums in Vancouver, Seattle and Portland, and soccer-specific facilities in 13 of the league’s 19 markets, and the growth of ticket sales, player salaries and expansion fees, American soccer has taken a significant leap forward towards its embrace of the beautiful game over the last decade.

“When I first came over here five years ago, I said that I was committed to this sport and committed to playing for this team and raising the awareness and the interest in this game,” Beckham said. “And in the last year, definitely, in the last two years, maybe, I’ve seen the growth, I’ve seen the interest change. I’ve seen the excitement around the country. And I don’t want to leave that yet. I want to be part of that going forward.”

Soccer won’t ever touch baseball, football or basketball as the sports primarily ingrained into the American psyche – a point acknowledged by Beckham when he was introduced in 2007. But in terms of growing participation, awareness and overall development of the United States’ contributions towards the global game, a significant step has been taken, even if the amount of Lakers games he’s attended outnumbers the number of goals he’s scored in a Galaxy jersey.

“The fanbase that we’ve got, the fanbase that other teams have got, all the way through the league now, there’s youth academies. That’s special,” Beckham said of the growth of American club soccer. “That’s what I’m personally used to coming and playing through Europe. It’s nice to see that in this country, and that’s what’s going to bring the level of play up.”

“There’s a lot of players, ex-players that are doing a lot of good work around the league in different organizations, different clubs that are making the game bigger in this country. Having the likes of Thierry [Henry], Robbie [Keane] come over, Landon [Donovan] playing the way he played in the final and obviously going on loan and playing the way he’s playing at Everton, that’s all good for the game.”

It hasn’t only been Beckham’s influence that has grown the game, though at the least it perked up the ears of the country’s sports awareness. The 2002 United States World Cup team that defeated Portugal and Mexico en route to an evenly played 1-0 loss to Germany in the quarterfinals helped lay the groundwork for soccer awareness five years before Beckham arrived.

Galaxy Head Coach/General Manager Bruce Arena, who coached the 2002 U.S. team, understands that Beckham’s and MLS’ contributions towards American soccer complement the advances that the national team has made over the last 10 years.

“The Galaxy had to be right for him, and the league had to be right,” Arena said. “I think by David coming back to LA, he confirms that MLS is making progress. He believes in the sport in America, and he believes in the Galaxy.”

Family was repeatedly cited by Beckham as the driving force leading towards the continuation of his stay in Los Angeles. Not wanting disrupt his family’s lifestyle or uproot his children after settling in Southern California five years ago, the family decision was universal and was solidified around the turn of the new year. While there were more lucrative deals on the table, one apparently from pockets-deep club Paris St. Germain, and while there was also a possibility of returning to the English Premier League, where “one or two” clubs had made advances (though Beckham declined to pinpoint which ones), retirement was never really an option. At 37 years of age, there’s still more that Beckham has to offer and teach, and he wants to do it in Los Angeles.

“Retirement – I’ve not even started thinking about that,” Beckham said. “Last season was such a special season, not just because we were champions, but the way we played, the way we conducted ourselves on and off the field, I could feel the change within the players and the young players. We had young players that were coming into games, stepping up and performing and winning games for us, and we hadn’t had that here before. It felt like a special season during the season. You don’t like to say it, you don’t like to talk about it, but it felt different.”

For AEG President and CEO Tim Lieweke, the last five years have been a step towards the Galaxy’s transcendence in becoming more of an international club, where jerseys are purchased around the planet and exhibition tours through Asia and elsewhere continue to develop a continental network of Galaxy supporters.

“We forged a relationship almost five years to the day with David,” Lieweke said. “It was a relationship based on not just division for what we can do with the sport of soccer and football in this country, but also what we can do as an organization to create a team and a legacy that would be seen as one of the great teams in the history of not just Major League Soccer but the sport of soccer in this country. That was always our goal. We wanted the Galaxy to set a new bar. We wanted this organization on and off the pitch to lead the way on how we were going to build this league going forward.”

“I will tell you, David, I am happy your family likes it here so much.”