Soccerstoriesbook's Blog


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.

Advertisements


HENRY’S HOLLYWOOD RETURN

Thierry Henry celebrated his return to Arsenal by scoring the lone goal in the Gunners’ 1-0 victory over Leeds United in the fourth round of the English F.A. Cup.

The 34-year-old French star, on loan from the New York Red Bulls, entered the match in the 68th minute to a tremendous ovation.  He delivered just 11 minutes later.  Running onto a diagonal pass from Alexandre Song, Henry right-footed a shot from the left side of the box past Leeds goalkeeper Andy Lonergan that settled inside the far post.  [January 9] 

Henry’s appearance was his first for Arsenal since 2007, when he joined FC Barcelona.  He’d departed after eight seasons as the Gunners’ all-time scoring leader with 227 goals.

Comment:  Once in a while, a great player is handed a perfect script and follows it to the letter.

Comment II:   Henry’s dream start at the Emirates wasn’t foreseen by at least one observer, who, nevertheless, may be proven right before the veteran striker’s two-month stay in London ends:



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.



REAL MADRID vs. … REAL SALT LAKE?

Real Salt Lake scrambled to earn a 2-2 draw with host Monterrey in the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League final, setting up a climactic second-leg showdown April 27 at Sandy, Utah.  The winner advances to the 2011 FIFA Club World Cup in December in Japan.

Argentine midfielder Javier Morales scored the equalizer in the 89th minute to lift the overall record of MLS clubs in Mexico to 0-21-4.  Real Salt Lake heads into the deciding leg having gone unbeaten in 37 matches in all competitions at Rio Tinto Stadium.  However, it will be without playmaker and captain Kyle Beckermann, an occasional U.S. international who will serve a yellow-card suspension.  [April 20]

Comment:  Major League Soccer has an international reputation of being on a par with, say, the Belgian second division and, an aging David Beckham or Thierry Henry aside, that’s not likely to change any time soon.*  Rapid expansion in recent years hasn’t helped as the native talent pool has been repeatedly dilluted, but Real Salt Lake could deliver a minor blow to that perception when it meets Monterrey needing nothing more than a 1-1 draw to become only the third U.S. club in the competition’s 49-year history to finish first.

Geophysicists rule out the major continental shift necessary for MLS clubs to compete in the UEFA Champions League, so the only way MLS can lift its image is by winning the CONCACAF Champions League on a regular basis, beginning with Real Salt Lake next week.  Since the North/Central America/Caribbean region began playing a club championship in 1962, better-paid, better-organized, better-supported Mexican teams have won 26 times (Club America and Cruz Azul five apiece), and no other country is even close.  Costa Rica has nearly half as many winners, six, as Mexico has runners-up, 13.  After El Salvador’s three winners, the U.S. is tied with Guatemala, Honduras, Trinidad & Tobago, Haiti and Surinam.

What makes this showdown significant for MLS is not just a CONCACAF Champions League trophy at stake but a berth in the FIFA Club World Cup.  Back in 1998, when DC United defeated Toluca of Mexico to capture what was then called the CONCACAF Champions Cup, the first-ever FIFA Club World Cup was two years away.   In 2000, the Los Angeles Galaxy beat Olimpia of Honduras in the CONCACAF final and thought it had booked a place in the following year’s Club World Cup in Spain, only for that competition to be cancelled for a number of reasons, chief among them the collapse of FIFA’s marking arm, ISL.   (As some may recall, the Galaxy was grouped with Real Madrid and scheduled to play the reigning European champion in the first round at the Bernabeu.)

The FIFA Club World Cup, which officially replaced the Intercontinental Cup–the long-running meeting of European and South American club champs–in 2005, certainly is not the most gripping competition on the international soccer calendar.   To some Euro champs, it’s been an annoying obligation in the heart of the regular league season, one in which winning is expected.  To South American champs, it’s a chance to prove that the Copa Libertadores holder is the world’s best.  But for the rest–the continental champions of Africa, Asia, Oceania and, yes, CONCACAF–the Club World Cup presents a priceless opportunity to show their wares to an Eurocentric soccer world.

*According to the most recent rankings of national leagues by the International Federation of Football History and Statistics, Major League Soccer comes in at No. 42.  Spain tops the list, followed by England, then Italy, Brazil, Germany, France and Argentina, as well as No. 11 Belgium, No. 12 Mexico, No. 18 Paraguay, No. 27 Japan and No. 32 Israel.  Immediately ahead of MLS are Croatia, Moldova, Serbia, Georgia and Tunisia.  Immediately after are Saudi Arabia, Bolivia, Poland and Sweden.   Five notches below America’s league is the Sudan.   Obviously, MLS Commissioner Don Garber continues to have some work ahead of him.