The comparisons with David Beckham are too good to ignore: One of the world's highest-profile players moves from a European league to Los Angeles in an attempt to ignite interest in American soccer.
But when Women's Professional Soccer kicks off in late March as the United States' second attempt at a pro women's league, it is expecting far greater things from its signature import than the limited on-field impact Beckham has managed in 18 months with the L.A. Galaxy.
Marta, the Brazilian superstar and undisputed queen of women's soccer, was announced this week as the latest signing of the Los Angeles Sol of WPS. The new league, attempting to succeed where the ill-fated Women's United Soccer Association (WUSA) failed amid crippling debt in 2003, has been busy snapping up some of the finest women's talent in the world the past few months, but it took the acquisition of Marta to really signal its intent. With the challenges WPS faces in making a splash in a tough market, signing the Brazilian was a critical step.
Marta's brilliance is unparalleled in women's soccer. Crowned FIFA women's player of the year for the third consecutive time following another outstanding season with Umea of the Swedish league and the Brazilian national team, the 22-year-old is far and away the greatest female player on the planet. Her level of skill is beyond compare, with tricks most of her opponents can't even imagine, let alone attempt.
But Marta knows she'll be playing for a greater good in L.A.
"I am concentrating on getting to Los Angeles and doing what I know best," Marta said this week. "I want to bring the game forward and make it more competitive because the U.S. is very strong.
"I have in mind that a very competitive league will be created. We are looking at the future. I think it will attract many players.
"I understand the challenge and project ahead of me with the Los Angeles Sol. I am ready to take it on and conquer all the objectives in front of me in the United States."
Beckham has been unable to elevate the levels of the dismal Galaxy, who finished 11th overall in Major League Soccer in 2007 and 13th last year and missed the playoffs. While his mere presence has been enough to increase ticket and shirt sales, supporters are starting to tire of the lack of success.
With Marta, plus U.S. national team stars Shannon Boxx, Stephanie Cox and Aly Wagner, it is hard to see the Sol failing. Marta is capable of turning a game on its head, and if she is anywhere near her peak, she should be too much for most WPS defenses to handle.
The signing of Marta was critical in lending the ultimate stamp of authenticity to the WPS product. North American sports fans make no apology for wanting to watch the best, and there is no questioning Marta's pedigree.
Whether there is enough to support professional men's and women's teams in the same cities remains to be seen. Many skeptics have voiced the opinion that MLS and WPS could cannibalize each other.
However, WPS is confident it will be supported. Its commissioner, Tonya Antonucci, was unable to disguise her delight at the end of the drawn-out chase for Marta's signature.
"We know people will talk about this like a David Beckham situation," Antonucci said. "There is no doubt that it was vital for the league to make this signing, and it is huge for us.
"We have got a young player in her prime. It is not just her level of play, but the exciting and flamboyant style which we hope will attract fans and keep them coming back."
It starts March 29 at the Home Depot Center when the Sol hosts the Washington Freedom and star U.S. striker Abby Wambach. That event is likely to draw strong interest, with the real test coming in the following weeks and months when the long-term viability of WPS will be seen.
An unprecedented period of economic uncertainty is far from being an ideal time to commence a fledgling sports league. However, the blueprint for the second coming of women's pro soccer in the U.S. has always been one of extreme prudence, a drastic shift from the wanton spending and ludicrously inflated expectations that doomed the WUSA from Day 1.
"Of course it is a tough market to start up in," Antonucci admitted. "No one is immune to what is going on. But I really believe we are a good cut-price option. Families can come and watch some top-quality entertainment, and it won't hit them too hard."
AEG, owners of the Sol and Galaxy, are no strangers to hype, as evidenced by the Hollywood-style extravaganza that marked Beckham's arrival. Said AEG vice president Scott Hanley: "Marta is a bona fide superstar in the sport of soccer who will undoubtedly electrify fans and raise awareness for both our team and WPS on a global scale."
Time will tell if all the talk is well-founded, if all the expectations of women's soccer's biggest star are realistic. Yet in an environment not exactly conducive to ambitious startup ventures, the biggest certainty surrounding the Marta experiment is not that it will succeed, but that it has to.
- David Beckham
- Los Angeles Sol