Soccerstoriesbook's Blog


ROGERS FORCES THE MEDIA’S HAND … A BIT

Former U.S. international Robbie Rogers, who in February revealed that he is gay, made his Los Angeles Galaxy debut, coming on as a substitute in the 77th minute of  L.A.’s 4-0 rout of the Seattle Sounders at the Home Depot Center.

The crowd of 24,811 greeted Rogers, who grew up in nearby Rancho Palos Verdes, with polite applause, and he had five touches in an uneventful cameo.

The 26-year-old outside midfielder earlier played in Major League Soccer for the Columbus Crew and made 18 appearances for the national team.  Two years ago he headed to England, where he played in the second tier for Leeds United and eventually, on loan, in the third tier for Stevenage.  Injuries and the emotional strain of hiding his sexual orientation took their toll, and Rogers parted ways with Leeds last winter.  Although in announcing his homosexuality Rogers said he would take a break from soccer, he was training with the Galaxy two months later.  Two days before the appearance against Seattle, L.A. midfielder-forward Mike Magee was traded to the Chicago Fire, which held Rogers’ MLS rights, for Rogers.  [May 26]

Comment:  Rogers’ return to soccer was truly an historic occasion–an important step in America’s evolution in its view of gays and lesbians.  But that’s for the social scientists.  From a soccer standpoint, it was very revealing.  And no, not because diehard Galaxy fans seemed oblivious of their new midfielder’s sexual orientation.  (Their concern lay with the loss of the popular Magee, the team’s leading scorer.  For the record, Magee wanted a move to his hometown of Chicago for personal reasons.)

The Rogers story revealed a U.S. news media that still has trouble admitting that MLS, the league whose teams average more fans per game than the NBA and NHL, is major league in more than name alone.  Weeks ago, NBA center Jason Collins made headlines with the revelation that he is gay.  However, at age 34, with his season over and his contract with the Golden State Warriors expiring, it is uncertain whether Collins will ever step onto an NBA court again.  Now, along comes Rogers, who has bravely come out of the closet knowing full well that he will spend the next five months in the glare of a spotlight of his own making, thus forcing the media to write, as the cliche goes, the first draft of history.

On one end, there was the Los Angeles Times, whose headline the next day read, “Rogers’ small step onto field is huge.  In Galaxy debut, he is first openly gay male team player in U.S. major pro sports.”

On the other end, there was the New York Times.  Sportswriter John Branch, noting that “you can’t choose your heroes,” followed that with, “Such is the case for the movement of gays in sports–more specifically openly gay men in major North American team sports.”  Four paragraphs later:  “On Sunday night, the soccer player Robbie Rogers became the first openly gay male athlete to play a major (sort of) North American team sport.”  Not long after, Branch’s New York Times colleague, Billy Witz, gave MLS a promotion of sorts, calling Rogers the “first … gay man to participate in a prominent North American professional league.”

So is Major League Soccer major league?  “Sort of” major?  Merely “prominent”?  In terms of TV ratings and average player salaries, it’s major league soccer because it is, by far, bigger than the country’s minor soccer leagues.  In terms of gleaming new stadiums, growing ranks of imported stars, plus growth potential based on grassroots participation numbers that make ice hockey’s look laughable, MLS is not only the country’s fifth major sport but its fourth, one rung on the ladder above the NHL.

For now, MLS is what the media tells the public it is.  If it is to gain recognition as a bona fide, honest-to-god major league, it will continue to come grudgingly.  As  the Los Angeles Daily News put it in a preview of the Galaxy’s next game, at New England,  “The Galaxy now play in a ‘major U.S. professional sport,’ according to the latest stories about the addition of Robbie Rogers.  So be it.”



IN THE END, A SUCCESSFUL EXPERIMENT

David Beckham closed out his Major League Soccer career in triumph as the Los Angeles Galaxy defeated the Houston Dynamo, 3-1, at the Home Depot Center in the 2012 MLS Cup, making defending champion Los Angeles the second club, after DC United, to capture four league titles.

Beckham has not revealed his next move, although he has been linked to clubs ranging from Queens Park Rangers in his native England and Glasgow Celtic to teams in Australia.  A clause in his current contract gives him the opportunity to become part-owner of an MLS club.  [December 1]

Comment:  Beckham exited the championship game in stoppage time to chants of “Thank-you, Beck-ham!” by Galaxy fans, a far cry from the first half of his stay.  He arrived in 2007 as damaged goods and started just two matches in his first season.  The Galaxy lost on a regular basis.  He alienated captain Landon Donovan and other teammates.  He managed to get himself loaned to AC Milan in a cynical and vain attempt to keep alive his England career.

It was all chronicled in the 2009 book, “The Beckham Experiment”–which appears to have been premature by at least three years.

Much has been made in the media of Beckham’s 5 1/2-year stay since he announced his MLS retirement a couple of  weeks ago.  In 2006 BC (Before Beckham), MLS had 12 clubs, the latest of which, Toronto FC, paid $10 million for the right to lose money.  Average attendance was a stagnant 15,504 (2.97 million total) and only four of the league’s stadiums were designed for soccer.  This year, Montreal, having paid $40 million, became the league’s 19th club.  The San Jose Earthquakes broke ground on MLS’s 15th soccer-specific stadium.  Average attendance was 18,807 (6.07 million total)–better than the NBA and NHL for the third straight year.  Each team has a youth academy, up from zero in ’06, and thanks to the so-called “Beckham Rule,” there are 31 star players scattered throughout a previously faceless MLS whose pay, in effect, doesn’t count against a team’s miserly-but-sensible salary cap.

Is it all Beckham’s doing?   Commissioner Don Garber, in his state of the league address five days before the game, went so far as to say, “I don’t think anybody would doubt that he has over delivered ….  There’s arguably not a soccer fan on this planet that doesn’t know the L.A. Galaxy and Major League Soccer, and David played a significant role in making that happen.”

So how much credit does Beckham deserve?  The truth, of course, lies somewhere in between.  Clearly, there’s no one like him–think a superstar like Thierry Henry, playing in the nation’s biggest market, could have had the same impact on his own?  What Beckham did–thanks to his splash, flash and the Beckham Rule that was necessary to make his arrival possible–was to show fans, the media, potential investors and corporate America that MLS was through treading water after 10 modestly successful seasons and finally meant business.  Mere survival was no longer an option.

Beckham will be missed.  No sane person ever expected him to lift soccer in the U.S. to the same plane as gridiron football, baseball and basketball, and he didn’t.  He merely moved the ball forward, his customary 35 yards at a time, and on so many fronts soccer now eclipses ice hockey as North America’s fourth-most popular team sport.

What remains for the immediate future is what Beckham left on the field at the Home Depot Center:  a cup final between two clubs owned by the same man, Philip Anschutz.  As Becks departs, that sort of arrangement remains a necessity in an MLS still at the toddler stage.



SO-CALLED ‘BECKHAM EXPERIMENT’ HAS BEEN WORTH IT

A pair of two-time Major League Soccer champions, the Houston Dynamo and Los Angeles Galaxy, will meet Sunday, November 20, before a sellout crowd at the Home Depot Center outside Los Angeles in the 2011 MLS Cup final.  Kickoff will be at 9 p.m. EST/6 p.m. PST (ESPN and Galavision).  [November 13]

Comment:  The game could mark David Beckham’s final appearance in the U.S., and that’s not a good thing.

The 36-year-old English icon’s five-year, $32.5 million contract with the Galaxy expires at the end of the year, and among Beckham’s reported suitors are Paris Saint-Germain, Tottenham Hotspur and even Queens Park Rangers.

If he leaves, despite the Galaxy’s reported interest in re-signing him, what sort of grade does the so-called “Beckham Experiment”–the title of a rather premature book on his MLS adventure published a couple of years ago–deserve?

Call it a high “B”; not quite a low “A”.   That’s an “A-” for overall effect, dragged down by an “S” (satisfactory) for effort.

There were just as many highs as lows over the five-year period.  More than a quarter-million Galaxy/No. 23 jerseys were sold before Beckham was even introduced as a member of the Galaxy, a media event that attracted 700 journalists.  As advertised, there were memorable free kicks that produced goals, and that crowd of 66,000 that poured into Giants Stadium to see the man with the educated right foot make his Big Apple debut.  There also, however, were injuries, plus the controversial loans to AC Milan and training spells with Arsenal and Tottenham that caused many to question Beckham’s commitment to his American team.  The collapse of  the much-vaunted Beckham youth academy in L.A. didn’t help.  So mixed has been the Beckham legacy in MLS that he earned–or was saddled with–the 2011 MLS Comeback Player of the Year award for assisting on 15 goals in 26 games a year after a torn Achilles limited him to just seven league appearances in 2010.  Oh, and no MLS championships or U.S. National Open Cups or CONCACAF Champions League trophies.

Nevertheless, Beckham will forever be linked with a brief period in MLS history when things went from flat to positive, from indifference to optimism.  The year before Beckham’s arrival, the league had 12 teams, too many of them troubled.  The charter U.S. internationals and key foreign starts like Carlos Valderrama and Marco Etcheverry who had given the teams their initial identities back in 1996 had retired.  It wasn’t, to quote Rodney Marsh’s assessment of English soccer in the early ’70s, “A gray game played on gray days by gray men,” but it was close. 

The creation of the so-called Beckham Rule–the introduction of the designated player exception that allowed teams to reach beyond their salary cap and sign marquee foreign players like Cuauhtemoc Blanco, Denilson (sorry, FC Dallas), Thierry Henry, Rafael Marquez and, most recently, Robbie Keane–changed all that.  Beckham’s arrival and how it lured other big names to MLS added the necessary flesh and blood to the brick and mortar as MLS grew by six clubs and added an impressive list of soccer-specific stadiums.

Most Americans aren’t aware that MLS (17,872) has surpassed the NBA (17,323) and NHL (17,132) in average attendance; that the expansion team fee has ballooned from $10 million, pre-Beckham, to $40 million; that the league’s most recent TV rights deal, with outsider NBC, hit $30 million for three years.  What they do know is that they can name one soccer player–David Beckham–where before they didn’t know Tab Ramos from Jamie Moreno from Mike Petke.  Back when the league was just trying to gain any sort of traction, back when the Galaxy was 11th out of 13 teams in 2007 (9-14-7) and 13th out of 14 the following year (8-13-9), people were talking and writing about Becks, or at least the photogenic Becks and wife Posh.

And that’s why Beckham will be missed if he chooses to close out his playing career elsewhere.  If and when he goes, don’t count on the general American public and the typical U.S. sports columnist or commentator to magically shift their attention to Dwayne De Rosario or David Ferreira or even Henry.   In that sense, Beckham has proved to be irreplaceable.



A GOLDEN CHALLENGE

CONCACAF unveiled its schedule for the 12-nation 2011 Gold Cup, which will be staged in an unprecedented 11 metro U.S. areas beginning June 5.  The regional championship, which was first held 20 years ago with eight nations in two stadiums (the Rose Bowl and Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum), will be played at Dallas Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, TX; Ford Field in Detroit; Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, NC; Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, FL; Soldier Field in Chicago; KC Soccer Stadium in Kansas City; RFK Stadium in Washington, DC; Reliant Stadium in Houston; FIU Stadium in Miami; Red Bull Arena in Harrison, NJ, and New Meadowlands Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ; and, outside Los Angeles, the Home Depot Center and Rose Bowl, site of the June 25 final.

Defending champion Mexico, host U.S. and Canada qualify automatically and will be joined by Caribbean champion Jamaica and area rivals Greneda, Cuba and Guadeloupe.  The remaining five teams will be determined next month at the Copa Centroamericana in Panama.  [December 16]

Comment:  If America’s interest in its World Cup team has any legs, we will find out during this Gold Cup.  This tournament marks the U.S. National Team’s first appearance on a major stage since it drew record television ratings for its four matches at South Africa ’10.  Will a significant number of those same Americans who crowded around TVs last June vote with their feet this June and buy tickets to see some old favorites and new faces playing against lesser teams for lesser stakes?

We’ll see. Provided the U.S. reaches the final and faces the auld enemy, Mexico, perhaps the support for the home team will be better than in 2007, when the Americans beat the Mexicans on a Benny Feilhaber golasso.  That was witnessed by a loud pro-Mexico crowd of 60,000 at Soldier Field.  Or last year, when Mexico humiliated an experimental U.S. side, 5-0, at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ, in front of an overwhelmingly partisan Mexico crowd of 79,156.  

Will a corner be turned in ’11, or will the U.S. players continue to find that an American stadium is just a home away from home?