Step Two: Proving His Worth To The Fans
|By Tim Froh|
Contributing Writer – Climbing the Ladder
While the ultimate effect of David Beckham’s arrival to MLS will probably not be felt on the pitch but in the pocketbooks of AEG executives, the tremendous impact he has already had on the American sporting landscape was keenly felt at the Home Depot Center this past Saturday. After a brash challenge on the Galaxy’s prized asset by Chelsea newcomer Steve Sidwell, nearly everyone watching, from MLS executives, to fans, to Posh herself, held their breaths as the already-injured Beckham managed to hoist himself up off the ground under his own power. So much seems to be at stake, not only monetarily, but also for the reputation of the league, and while Beckham may or may not have a positive impact on his club’s fortunes and on the state of play in MLS as a whole, his ability to get onto the field and play is of the utmost importance, to the Galaxy, to its sponsors, and most importantly, to the fans (and to those who are fans but don’t know it yet).
Meanwhile, in Chicago, the league’s other major DP signing, Mexico’s infamous Cuauhtemoc Blanco, scored in his debut match against Celtic. That match, which was attended by a sizeable enough crowd, still must have disappointed the Fire brass, who doubtless expected Mexican fans to attend in droves, at least initially. Blanco’s arrival and immediate impact on the pitch bode well for the future of the DP. Indeed, rumors now abound that the Fire are close to signing Costa Rican striker Paulo Wanchope. If true, the Fire will have instantly improved their attack and bolstered their offensive options. The onus is now on head coach Carlos Osorio to keep Blanco happy and productive in a new league with new teammates.
Whether Blanco goes on to score a goal every game (unlikely) or Beckham helps the Galaxy achieve offensive cohesion by notching an assist every match (unlikely) ultimately doesn’t matter. The DP signings have already been a success. Blanco has brought unprecedented levels of Spanish-language media coverage to the Fire, while Beckham has only recently graced the cover of ESPN the Magazine and earned the Galaxy equally unprecedented shirt sales (supposedly over 250,000 Beckham jerseys have been preordered). Even if the two players are busts (barring injury, also unlikely), the signings will not only have already paid for themselves but they will have hopefully turned on at least a few thousand people onto MLS.
And this is the point that the pundits at ESPN don’t understand. The goal is not to convert legions of American sports fans into soccer fanatics. Beckham isn’t here to “save soccer” because soccer in America doesn’t need “saving.” Instead, he’s here to raise the viability and recognition of a league that hasn’t had international star players since its inception (even there, it’s debatable whether Carlos Valderrama and Marco Etcheverry had a significant impact on attendance and viability – certainly though, their presence was felt on the pitch), and who have realized in the last two seasons, particularly after the success of Toronto FC this season, that the key is not to try and convert non-fans but to win over the countless millions who already love and watch the sport.
This is not going to be a problem that is solved overnight. Toronto, unlike other MLS cities, is something of an exception to the rule. Not only is it an enormous market that has long cried out for a major sporting team (or so some Toronto fans have told me), but one with an incredibly diverse international population that has long supported the sport. So while Beckham’s impact may create an initial flurry of high attendances and media interest, the trick will be sustaining this momentum. While some may have already converted, raising the quality of play is the only sure way of winning over the already-fans. If the quality of play can increase step-for-step with the continual increase in media exposure, MLS need not worry about finding new owners, filling up stadia, and negotiating television contracts.
By the looks of things, the Galaxy are already trying valiantly to do their part. The English media had a field-day with Los Angeles’ appalling performance in their friendly against Tigres. However, they more than held their own in their 2-1 victory over Mexican club Pachuca in the Superliga on Tuesday night. Abel Xavier has proved an inspired and important signing, and some Galaxy players, notably Cannon, Donovan, and Cobi Jones, seem to have stepped up their play of late. It’s still not too late for the Galaxy to try and make a run for the playoffs (no matter how unlikely that prospect may seem), and Beckham’s return from injury should help immensely. Beckham’s already proved his value to MLS only having played fourteen minutes against Chelsea. Now his most important test is whether he can prove his worth to the fans and to the fickle Los Angeles sports crowd.