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CARSON, Calif. – It seems so blindingly obvious when you think about it: For soccer's most famous player to increase the sport's profile in America, it had to be about … soccer.
Yet in those heady days that followed David Beckham's American arrival, amid an all-emcompassing whirlwind of photo shoots and publicity spin, the cult of personality that surrounded England's most heralded export since the Beatles was all that seemed to matter.
The need to get Beckham in front of every camera, on to every television screen, every magazine cover and into a Los Angeles Galaxy uniform was the primary concern for those falling over themselves to laud him as the conquering savior of the sport in the United States.
The upshot was catastrophic. The England midfielder was not healthy, still troubled by a damaged ankle, and he was far below his best when he took the field. Also, the Galaxy were inept and utterly unprepared to incorporate an international-quality player into their lineup.
For two years the result was embarrassment – for MLS, the Galaxy and for Beckham himself. Instead of being the turning point in the league's future, it seemed as if his stint here would become nothing more than a disappointing and relatively unproductive interlude.
But something strange happened this season. The Galaxy, one of MLS's worst teams the past two years despite having the league's biggest payroll, suddenly got their act together.
Beckham returned from a loan spell with AC Milan freshly motivated, quickly patched up a rift with teammate Landon Donovan and started tearing it up on the field. Los Angeles started to win, so much so that it went from being a fringe playoff contender to the Western Conference champion and now the favorite to win Sunday's MLS Cup title game in Seattle against Real Salt Lake.
And the soccer public, who had long since grown tired of seeing Beckham either sit on the bench injured or flounder as part of a useless side, began to take interest. Not just in Beckham the clothes horse, underwear model and photographic icon, but Beckham the soccer player as well.
"This is the year that people are talking about the Galaxy as a football team and not just a publicity thing," the 34-year-old Beckham said. "That is the good part about it. We have enjoyed it this season and the success is good because it quiets a few people who have been hating a few times."
Beckham was always going to have a lot to live up to if his move to the Galaxy was going to be seen as a success, especially after his gala unveiling at the Home Depot Center in July 2007 that was complete with grand proclamations from various figures and inflated reports of his multi-million income, which was announced as $250 million over five years but in reality was far less.
When things turned sour, the bubble burst and quickly. Beckham was denounced as a fraud and a mercenary making time in sunny California until the end of his career. However, his performances and effort levels this season have ended such thoughts, as he transformed the face of the 2009 season by carrying an emerging team on his shoulders the past four months.
So now, MLS gets its greatest wish – its biggest star and most recognizable team playing for the championship. Real Salt Lake is the feel-good story and the way the Utah club has won on the road to reach the final is admirable. Yet there is only one storyline that is going to spike the ratings for Sunday's game, and that is the issue of whether Beckham can complete his remarkable revival and turn his American adventure into an on-field triumph.
"I have always been envious of pro sports leagues that always seem to have their biggest teams and most popular clubs in the finals," MLS commissioner Don Garber said. "The Yankees always seem to be there, and if not them then it is the Red Sox. You see the Lakers [in basketball] and the Giants in football. That kind of thing helps your ratings.
"David has been hugely important to the league in helping us grow our exposure in the United States and globally. The good thing is that it is not just about him being here but being part of a really competitive team and a key part of their success. That is what he is doing.
"Now instead of the images you see beamed around of David sitting courtside at Lakers games, you see pictures of him pointing at his watch and shouting at the referee that he is allowing too much time."
Globally, the difference is significant. MLS wants to make its mark as a competition to be taken seriously around the world, and there could be no greater boost than with Beckham's involvement. The game will be broadcast in 122 countries and has made headlines in even more thanks to the former Manchester United and Real Madrid star.
Measuring the ratings increase for this year's final will be tough as the match will be broadcast on ESPN instead of ABC. However, ticket sales had already topped 45,000 by Thursday and a 68,000 sellout at Qwest Field is not out of the question. Such a figure would have been impossible in any other situation apart from the hometown Seattle Sounders qualifying for the championship game.
The Galaxy's crowds, once heavily infused with spectators more interested in showbiz than soccer, now have a more hard-edged, passionate and traditional element.
"Definitely there is more interest," Beckham said of the sport's growth in the U.S. "There are new franchises and new stadiums going up. It is getting bigger. It is not going to happen in five or 10 years, but things are heading the right way.
"It is not just families coming down. There are hardcore fans as well and people are understanding the game."
Part of the deal in bringing Beckham to America was for him to serve as an ambassador for MLS. Yet all the handshakes and acts of community goodwill could not compare with the legitimacy he has added by simply busting his backside for the Galaxy this season.
The message being sent out across the soccer globe: If David Beckham cares about MLS, why shouldn't you?
Who knows exactly what Beckham's legacy to American soccer will have been when he eventually hangs up his boots, but we now know with ultimate certainty that pride, commitment and a likely championship is a more effective marketing tool than red carpets, Hollywood friends and a celebrity wife.