David Beckham’s accomplishments during his five-year tour of Major League Soccer go far beyond simply winning MLS Cup championships.
“There are very few people anywhere in the world who don’t know about Major League Soccer because David has been here, and I don’t know we could have that global awareness and credibility just with the other positive developments,” MLS commissioner Don Garber said, as reported by aol.sportingnews.com. “I think David was really able to push the positive growth and developments to a global level.”
Beyond playing midfield, Beckham achieved much for the league. When he arrived there were 12 teams and now there are 19 teams, says aol.sportingnews.com. Attendance is up more than 20 percent. The average player salary has risen more than 80 percent. There are 10 new stadiums, with an 11th on the way in San Jose. Beckham opened the door for the influx of other foreign stars such as Thierry Henry, Robbie Keane and Alessandro Nesta.
“He’s done more in MLS and for MLS than any of us ever would have imagined,” said L.A. Galaxy coach Bruce Arena, according to aol.sportingnews.com.
But can the momentum Beckham helped create for MLS be sustained or will it drop off with his departure? Will Beckham’s legacy be as temporary as Pele’s achievements with the first North American Soccer League?
Pele was greeted with much hoopla and fanfare when he arrived in the United States in 1975 to play for the New York Cosmos. After all, he had great charisma and was regarded as the greatest player to yet live. He was later joined in New York by the greatest sweeper in history, Franz Beckenbauer of West Germany. Although they were aging superstars, Pele and Beckenbauer linked up with potent striker Giorgio Chinaglia to make the Cosmos an exciting championship squad. Attendance and TV ratings spiked and soccer took off to new heights in the U. S. But once Pele left after the 1977 season, and Beckenbauer departed shortly thereafter, the NASL began to wane. By 1984 the decline was so steep the league folded.
Now that Beckham has stepped away, what is to keep MLS from experiencing the same fate as the NASL did without having Pele to bolster the product?
1. Soccer is now much better established in the US. When Pele joined the struggling NASL in 1975, soccer was still largely foreign to most Americans. Over the past few decades the overwhelming success of the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team and the appearances of the U. S. Men’s National Soccer Team in several World Cup finals competitions have helped elevate the status of soccer. Americans are much more aware of soccer now. Many more Americans now play soccer or know someone who plays soccer.
2. Less reliance on Beckham than on Pele. For many reasons MLS did not have to rely upon Beckham to sell their sport as much as the NASL had to depend on Pele. Beckham may be the most glamorous and media-covered soccer player, but he was never regarded as the best player in the world or the best player in history the way Pele was. The expectation of what Pele was capable of doing on the field was greater than what was anticipated of Beckham.
3. More American stars. MLS has many established American stars such as Landon Donovan. The NASL had fewer American stars, so when Pele retired and returned home, the NASL had less to fall back on to generate local interest than MLS will have.
4. Immigration. There has been a huge infusion of soccer-knowledgeable people from Latin America and Asia over the past few decades. They can help form the fan base for MLS that was missing from the NASL.
5. MLS has a stronger foundation. The MLS was formed in 1993 and commenced play in 1996. Beckham arrived in 2007, over a decade after the league started. The MLS was built around the U.S. national team making the World Cup finals. The NASL was formed in 1968 and Pele arrived in 1975. The NASL did not have the World Cup or American players to build around. So MLS had a stronger foundation and was much more stable before Beckham arrived than the NASL had before Pele came to its rescue.
The demise of the NASL in the years after Pele retired should serve as a cautionary tale for MLS. However, the MLS is on much stronger footing than the NASL was and the MLS has a much better chance of survival without Beckham than the NASL had without Pele.