September 22, 2014

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Beckham next step in growth of U.S. soccer

Nancy Armour
The Associated Press
It’s safe to say no athlete, no matter how famous, has ever gotten a welcome quite like David Beckham.
Hundreds of fans at the airport, and thousands more at the stadium — decked out in his brand-new jersey, of course. His every word, smile and wave during his introduction carried live across the globe. A blizzard of confetti. Not just one mayor on hand, but two.
Beckham is worth every bit of this fawning.
Ever since he announced in January he was leaving Europe to come to the Los Angeles Galaxy, the talk about soccer’s most famous face and foot tended to fall into one of two categories: He’s going to be the savior of Major League Soccer, or he’ll make a big splash initially, just as Pele did 30 years ago, but it won’t matter because Americans don’t care about soccer.
Neither is true.
The anti-soccer curmudgeons are loath to admit it, but the world’s favorite game has established a solid foothold here and it’s only going to get bigger. Go to any park or schoolyard on the weekend, and somebody’s playing soccer. TV ratings for last summer’s World Cup were up — even with the U.S. team going home early — and ABC and ESPN think enough of the game to televise all 31 matches of the 2008 European Championship.
Will adding Beckham to this mix elevate soccer to NFL status? No, and it’s ridiculous to expect that of him.
But with his good looks, ever-changing hairstyles, Spice Girl wife and BFFs who double as Hollywood’s A list, Becks will make sure fans and fringe alike watch. He gives MLS the kind of pop culture cred it was years from getting on its own.
More importantly, he and the other big-name players who joined MLS this season will lift the level of play across the league. That helps narrow the still-considerable gap with Europe’s top leagues and makes for stronger American players. Which eventually means better results at the World Cup. Which eventually generates more interest in the sport.
It’s a work in progress to be sure, this makeover of the United States into a full-fledged soccer nation. That was clear with the tacky displays at Friday’s news conference — and, no, that’s not a reference to Posh and her outfit.
The Galaxy trotted out L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who is currently starring in the city’s most popular soap opera after splitting with his wife and announcing his affair with a local TV newscaster. He was, not surprisingly, booed. Galaxy GM Alexi Lalas couldn’t pass on the opportunity to shill team merchandise.
But that is why Beckham is here. His arrival is a shortcut on the road to respectability.
“I think soccer in America has a lot of potential, just maybe something is missing to take it to another level,” he said after his introduction Friday. “And I’m hoping I’m going to be part of that.”
The naysayers love to point to Pele, saying even he couldn’t convert Americans when he played for the New York Cosmos in the heady days of the North American Soccer League.
But that’s not a fair comparison.
Americans were about as into soccer as they were cricket when the NASL began in 1967. Sure, there were some semipro leagues and a few die-hard fans. But there was no base, no real history of the game. The United States hadn’t been to the World Cup since 1950, and an American had as good a chance of playing on the moon as he did in any of Europe’s top leagues.
Pele, Franz Beckenbauer and Johan Cruyff may have excited fans, but there was nothing to grab onto beyond them.
“Pele sort of started on page 1,” soccer historian Colin Jose said. “And now we’re at page 50.”
MLS is only in its 12th season, but it has already had an impact. Where the best players once hung up their boots in high school or college, they can now make a living playing soccer. Maybe not the $32.5 million Beckham is getting paid, but enough to keep them playing.
U.S. players are no longer novelties in Europe, with three — Brian McBride, Carlos Bocanegra and Clint Dempsey — at Fulham alone in the English Premier League. And while the Americans didn’t exactly do themselves proud at last summer’s World Cup, they’re not international lightweights anymore.
Soccer’s time in America is coming. Beckham’s arrival brings it that much closer.
Nancy Armour is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to her at narmour@ap.org.