CARSON, Calif. – Like Wayne Gretzky before him, David Beckham's arrival in America came with the baggage of selling to an audience a product it mostly didn't want. And now the clock starts on finding out if he succeeded.
Beckham will play his final game in Major League Soccer on Saturday, a contest against the Houston Dynamo that just happens to be for the MLS Cup. Mentioning the championship game is this weekend has to be noted because six years after Beckham joined the L.A. Galaxy, much of America still doesn't care about the MLS.
That's not a dig. It's reality. And Beckham and the league know it.
But the other reality is that Beckham's time here was never going to have a microwave effect on Americans' interest in soccer – fast-baking it to be served up in 30 seconds. Like trying to forge peace in the Middle East, it seems the effort to convince America to like soccer has been going on since forever.
What Beckham has done is open the league's eyes to something it didn't see itself as before. The biggest name in soccer came to play in MLS with plenty of gas left in the tank. Then other European stars like Thierry Henry followed him to North America. And Becks stuck around, even after getting booed by his own fans.
"GO HOME FRAUD," a sign read at Home Depot Center back in 2009 when Beckham spent part of the season playing back in Europe in hopes of being chosen for England’s 2010 World Cup team. Galaxy supporters, already skeptical of his motives for coming to America, were angry he'd bailed on their team.
But while it was a trying moment for Beckham – he'd been booed before, but never at home – it showed the fans were paying attention, that they cared.
Even in those first few years when Beckham played sporadically because of injury or sabbatical, he was making MLS more relevant, in the stands and in locker rooms across the pond. He eventually showed others the league isn't a retirement home for players looking for one more paycheck. He was giving MLS legitimacy and, in the process, a vision.
"David didn't bring us to the place we want to be," explained Tim Leiweke, president of the Galaxy's parent company AEG, which spent years courting Beckham. "David made us understand how great we can be.
"[David] leaving is not the end of the story; it's only the first chapter," Leiweke continued. "David, to me, shined the light on our opportunity. He challenged us. I don't want David Beckham to be the story. I want David Beckham to be the guy to introduce us to the potential greatness of the story."
And so now MLS must wait to see if the process Beckham helped set in motion can lead to the league's stated goal of becoming a "a pre-eminent sport in North America" by 2022.
It waits to see who the next big star will be to follow Beckham's lead and bail on Europe to come to America. (Leiweke has already targeted a player and has Beckham in full recruiting mode.)
It waits to see if one of those stars comes across in his prime.
It waits to see if a brilliant European prospect starts his career in MLS.
It waits to see if a school of 10-year-old Americans grow up to be big-time professional soccer players.
Bring in the game's biggest star, have him convince more and more top players to make the move to the U.S., and over time show kids there's a future in playing soccer. That, in a nutshell, is the game plan developed via the David Beckham Experiment.
"My pitch [to recruit other players] is simple: [Come] if you want to be a part of something big," Beckham said Thursday. "Because when Tim Leiweke came to my house six years ago, that's exactly what he said to me. He said, 'Soccer's not one of the biggest sports in the U.S., but one day it will be.' And I believe him."
Now David Beckham’s commitment to MLS will move to ownership where he'll inherit the league's 2022 goal. Ten years to do what the NHL hasn't been able to do in the 24 years since Gretzky arrived in Los Angeles. With hockey killing itself and baseball only getting slower, a spot at the head table is there for the taking.
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