David Beckham had an impact on Canadian clubs like TFC, on the pitch and off it.
David Beckham's announcement Thursday that he'll be retiring from soccer at the end of Paris Saint-Germain's season has prompted plenty of thoughtful pieces looking back at his legacy, but an underrated part of his career might be the impact he had on Major League Soccer in Canada. Beckham came to MLS in 2007, the same year that Toronto FC joined the league, and he left for good at the end of the 2012 campaign, by which time the league had three Canadian franchises that were all pulling in massive numbers of fans. He left an undeniable imprint on MLS as a whole, but his effect on MLS in Canada was also noteworthy—and for several different reasons.
Beckham's impact on ticket sales is most frequently cited when it comes to discussions of his MLS legacy, but in Canada, that was arguably less of a factor than it was in some weaker American markets. Toronto FC, the Vancouver Whitecaps and the Montreal Impact have all had strong game-by-game attendance with or without Becks. However, Beckham's drawing power did still matter to the Canadian franchises. There was often much more attention from non-soccer-specific media ahead of games involving him and the L.A. Galaxy, and he undoubtedly brought people through the turnstiles who weren't previously soccer fans or MLS fans. Many of those people probably didn't wind up coming for game after game without Beckham, but some did, and Beckham was crucial to building awareness of the MLS brand and of the improving quality of North American soccer.
Don't underestimate Beckham's drawing power, either. Not all of the 47,658 who packed the Rogers Centre for a 2012 CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal match between TFC and the Galaxy came to see Beckham, but some of them certainly did. Games involving Beckham in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal also often saw much higher prices for tickets on secondary markets. The Canadian teams didn't need Beckham as a draw as much as some American markets did, but his presence still helped.
Don't discount what Beckham did for MLS in Canada beyond individual games, either. The Whitecaps (2011) and Impact (2012) both joined MLS after Beckham, and his elevation of the league's profile was an important part in why it was able to expand and why both clubs were so interested in moving up from the second tier. Moreover, both the Whitecaps and Impact play in venues (B.C. Place and Stade Saputo, respectively) that were renovated with extensive provincial government contributions ($514 million and $23 million respectively). Those contributions may well have come without Beckham, but he played a major role in raising awareness of MLS amongst groups beyond hardcore soccer fans, and not too many provincial politicians are in the hardcore soccer fan camp. (Beckham was also rumoured to be part of Joey Saputo's proposed MLS ownership group back in 2009, but that never played out; it wouldn't be surprising to see him take an ownership interest in some MLS team in the years to come, though.) It would be far too simplistic to say that Beckham's responsible for Vancouver and Montreal having MLS franchises and MLS-quality stadiums, but he did substantially boost the league's profile, and the league's higher profile played a role in how both cities got teams.
The most interesting element of Beckham in Canada may have been his recurring appearance as an on-pitch villain, though. In that Champions League quarterfinal, Beckham took plenty of abuse from opposing supporters (including a thrown beer can), but still managed to find a way to break the locals' hearts on the pitch, setting up a crushing 89th-minute equalizer from Landon Donovan with one of his trademark corner kicks. That didn't wind up mattering, as TFC won the return leg and advanced to the semifinals, but it was a familiar story, as Beckham often wound up making crucial contributions in games against Canadian teams. Another one came in the 2012 playoffs, where he and the Galaxy ensured that Vancouver's run as the first Canadian team in the MLS postseason was a short one, helping to set up Mike Magee's equalizer (L.A. won that match 2-1).
That's also part of the Beckham story that's often overlooked: for all his glitz and glamour, and for all the talk of him not being consistently at the level he reached in his prime, he was still a very effective MLS player and a crucial part of the Galaxy's MLS Cup championships in 2011 and 2012. He also consistently helped to thwart Canadian teams' on-pitch ambitions. Thus, while Beckham did plenty of good for MLS in Canada off the field, he also proved a capable adversary on the field. His Canadian impact wasn't one-dimensional or easy to quantify, but he's a big part of the story of MLS in Canada, and one that shouldn't be edited out.
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