Beckham renewal caps off MLS fortune change
Mike O’Donnell @modonnell6
The winning goal in last season’s MLS Cup, the competition’s championship game, will have been enjoyed not only by Los Angeles Galaxy fans, but Major League Soccer bosses too.
As a 30-second snapshot of the MLS, footage of the solitary strike and the passage of play that preceded it – beamed to TVs, computer screens and mobile devices around the world – made for the perfect brand campaign, featuring the United States’ leading goal scorer, the league’s latest poster boy and the most famous player on the planet, who has just signed a new two-year deal with the Galaxy and reaffirmed his commitment to football in the US and Canada.
Indeed, while David Beckham’s involvement in the goal was fleeting (a flicked header to Robbie Keane, who, in turn, set up Landon Donovan), his impact on the sport in his adopted homeland could have lasting effects.
Beckham’s much-publicised arrival in the US in July 2007, and that of the Designated Player Rule (named informally in his honour and which exempts a limited number of players from capped salaries), paved the way for other big names from Latin America and particularly Europe to follow.
A trickle soon become a stream, with Thierry Henry, Rafael Márquez, Torsten Frings and Keane among those to have joined the MLS on lucrative terms in the past 18 months.
The MLS had needed to boost its image, but also the standard of football played within its stadiums. The latter had been such that Premier League chaff such as Jaime Moreno (25 appearances for Middlesbrough) and Predrag Radosavljević, better known as Preki (86 appearances for Everton and Portsmouth), were able to carve out glittering careers on American and Canadian soil.
Moreno, the first Bolivian to play in the Premier League, made 329 appearances and scored 131 goals for DC United during two spells at the club; while Preki, an American of Serbian extraction, retired at the age of 42 after 71 goals in 218 games for the Kansas City Wizards. Both are listed in the MLS All-Time Best XI.
Those places could soon be under threat given the high-calibre imports the league is now able to attract – but it is young homegrown talent, rather than ageing overseas stars, who will ensure that any spike in interest following the arrivals of Beckham, Henry and co is sustained long after they hang up their boots.
There is the danger that all the good work that has gone into enhancing the MLS in recent years could be undone if the league allows itself to be seen solely as a refuge for fading stars seeking one final bumper payday and the chance to roll back the years and reassert their authority over opposing players.
To their credit, it’s an issue the MLS commissioner, Don Garber, and the league’s administrators recognise, making a tweak to the Designated Player Rule to encourage and facilitate investment in young foreign imports.
But, of course, it is the emergence of domestic talent that is fundamental to the game’s growth in any country, and particularly in one as patriotic as the US. It is hoped that the implementation of a league-wide youth development programme will bear fruit in the years to come – but who of the current crop of players look like having what it takes to eventually succeed Beckham as an MLS ambassador?
While there should be no urgency to pronounce the arrival of the first world-class US or Canadian footballer, given how Freddy Adu failed to bear the colossal weight of expectation heaped upon his barely teenage shoulders, there is cautious optimism that Brek Shea and Juan Agudelo might make the grade.
Shea, a 6ft 3in central midfielder, has already made 84 appearances for Dallas FC and a further nine at international level after impressing the US coach, Jürgen Klinsmann. The 21-year-old’s performances in 2011 saw him shortlisted for the MVP Award and caught the eye of Arsène Wenger, who invited him to train at Arsenal during the MLS off-season.
In a similar arrangement, Agudelo has also spent time in the UK this winter. The 19-year-old linked up at Liverpool with compatriot Marc Pelosi, who recently joined the Merseyside club’s academy set-up from De Anza Force in California.
Agudelo, a Colombian-born forward who is now a US international, became the youngest player to score for the senior team with the winning goal against South Africa last year. At club level, Agudelo has an ideal mentor in New York Red Bulls captain Henry, with whom he has already forged an impressive strike partnership.
Are Shea and Agudelo a sample of the rich crop of young football talent emerging from within the MLS or further evidence – alongside transatlantic pre-season tours, the launch of football academies in the region and sundry commercial tie-ups (for example, LeBron James, one of the biggest sporting stars in the US, last year acquired a minority stake in Liverpool and has since become a walking billboard for their latest clothing lines) – of European clubs identifying a footballing superpower in the making and an ideal market in which to promote their brand?
Danny Dichio, the former QPR, Sunderland, West Brom, Millwall and Preston North End striker, certainly sees evidence of the former, and believes it won’t be long before a new generation of talented youngsters graduate to take their places alongside the likes of Shea and Agudelo. He should know. Dichio joined the MLS side Toronto FC in its inaugural year in 2007, before making 59 appearances for the club. Since retiring two years later, he has become the head coach of its academy team.
Dichio says: “There is a strong current crop of youngsters coming through in the US and definitely Canada. Where we are in Toronto, we have a very diverse culture in the city, varying from Europe to South America and then Africa and Asia. A lot of these kids’ parents are immigrants who have been brought up on football, so it is in their blood.”
That football is not in the blood of the rest of the population is the argument of those who believe that, for all the strides made by the MLS in promoting football and improving its standard, there will only ever be enough room in their hearts for their own version of the sport and others indigenous to the region.
Perhaps with that in mind, the MLS has been tailored somewhat to audiences familiar with the mechanisms of American football, baseball, basketball and ice hockey. Peculiarities include player drafts, a franchise system (whereby players sign to the MLS itself rather than the clubs it owns), regional divisions (namely Eastern and Western conferences), and a schedule that includes a regular season and play-off fixtures.
That there is no tier system, meaning no promotion and relegation, may seem a concession too far to many European observers. But, despite arguments that the existing model can stifle competitiveness while generating dead rubbers and surplus play-off games, Dichio says there’s not much chance of it changing any time soon: “The North American fan loves the play-off system as they have it ingrained in all their sports. Relegation or promotion is not really heard of here.
“The owners who are paying a small fortune for an expansion club now would not be happy to see their investment possibly go down to the second tier and hit their financial situation very hard.”
The formula, flawed or not, seems to be working. The MLS is now the third-best-attended sport in the US, after American football and baseball, and the tenth-most-attended football league in the world, above the English Championship, the Scottish Premier League and Brazil’s Serie A. Although average attendances have remained in the 15,000-20,000 bracket since its founding year in 1996, total gates have doubled in that period to 5.5 million.
That is because of the growing number of MLS franchises, which now total 19. They include three in Canada, with Montreal Impact set to join Toronto and last year’s debutants Vancouver Whitecaps next season. And it is these “expansion teams”, taking the game into new territories, that are key to its growth, according to Dichio: “The league is still young and so many of the clubs are in their early stages. Some of the clubs in the league have fantastic support already; they just need to build some history first and see if people can continue the love of the team and the game in that city.”
Expanding TV coverage is also playing a part in bringing football to new homes, and the 2011 MLS Cup was broadcast in 115 countries. But Dichio says the quality of football journalism, as well as the game itself, still has some way to go: “A lot of journalists over here are not football people and are generally told to cover soccer as a cost-cutting expense for their newspaper, as well as cover baseball, basketball and American football. They don’t even watch Premier League games.
“[Journalists] see when Premier League teams come over in pre-season and seemingly struggle in the heat. They see this as proof that MLS teams can compete with them on an even basis, which is ludicrous!”
They may not be able to compete at that level yet but, only 16 years old, the MLS has yet to come of age. However, with established stars and emerging talent filling its rosters, that time may not be too far off, Dichio believes: “The standard of play will steadily keep improving if the players keep coming in from around the world to play alongside the ever-improving local talent coming through the newly improved academy programmes at every club.”
It is inevitable that Beckham’s time in LA will be judged, by those on one side of the Atlantic at least, on quite how the MLS has benefited a player of such prodigious talents. (To the tune of many millions of dollars, would likely be the unanimous verdict.)
But perhaps a better question is how – in terms of stimulating the game’s growth in the US and Canada by helping to raise both its standard and profile – he has, consciously or otherwise, benefited the MLS.
Thanks to Sami Shah on this article. If you enjoyed this, then check out “The Problem With Punditry”