Thursday, January 18, 2007
Major League Soccer has generated the biggest publicity coup in their history, topping the previous high water mark of signing a certain 14-year old to a professional contract in 2004, a first for American sports.
So what does the signing of mega-star (with a clear sign of fading) David Beckham mean for American soccer and its impact on the rest of the world?
And maybe even more importantly, what impact will this contract have on Americans currently playing in MLS, some playing for yearly salaries that account for approximately 3.5 hours of Beckham's new contract?
Was that the sound of the North American Soccer League rising from the dead? Should we get those old Cosmos uniforms out of mothballs?
For those too young to remember, the NASL was our country's first real attempt with soccer as a mainstream sport in America. It ran from 1968, when the United Soccer Association and National Professional Soccer League merged, to 1985, when overspending and rapid expansion forced it to fold.
The overspending started in 1975 when the New York Cosmos attracted a 34-year old global cultural icon known as Pelé to sign a $4.5 million contract. The Samba King was lured to bring respectability to the sport in the States.
Once word got out that crazy Yanks thought money was no option to get over-the-hill soccer stars playing in packed (and sometimes not so packed) stadiums, various European stars at various stages in their careers (mostly the downward stage) came over in droves.
European household names such as Beckenbauer, Best, Cruyff and Chinaglia all took advantage of the life of luxury being offered to them and ran with it.
It wasn't all bad, though. In 1978, the Cosmos averaged over 47,000 in attendance every home game, and set a record the previous year when over 78,000 attended the championship game with the Vancouver Whitecaps.
Why is all this relevant? Simply because the arrival of "Posh and Becks" (y'all better get used to hearing that phrase on the E! channel) could be the start of a second European stampede.
As this was being written, Tottenham Hotspur and former Dutch international midfielder Edgar Davids is in talks for a move to FC Dallas. The British papers and the BBC are reporting that Beckham wants no less than Luis Figo and Zinedine Zidane to join him in MLS.
What's more, the likes of Robert Pires, Ronaldo and Nolberto Solano have all publicly discussed coming to America. Granted a lot of this is idle speculation, but it has got Europe's attention.
Before we all rush out to buy MLS season tickets for the next over-the-hill gang, it should be said that there is little chance the same fate which doomed the NASL will also befall MLS.
The league has been run like a Salvation Army thrift store since its inception in 1996: all contracts owned by the league, a $2.9 million salary cap, and a small group of owners that have kept the expanding league out of Chapter 11.
As the league starts to diversify, bring in new ownership and actually gets paid for having its games televised (as happened last season), there will be increasing pressure to get a better return on the investment, or even make a quick buck. Don Garber and his crew should resist this with every fiber of their being.
One interesting development that may occur as a result of the "designated player" rule that allowed Beckham to come to LA is the effect it will have on some of brighter American lights in the league.
Players such as Landon Donovan and Eddie Johnson are pulling down pretty decent paychecks with MLS ($900,000 and $850,000 respectively, according to British daily The Independent). Their full salary will have to count against the cap if a designated player already exists (as in the LA Galaxy's case with Beckham, who will eat up $400,000 worth of cap space).
This could be the scenario that brings Donovan back to Europe. I'm sure some of the YA readership will tire of my rants about Landon and his issue with homesickness, but consider... if he is forced off the Galaxy due to the constrains of the cap, where will he go?
What other MLS team will be able to fit him under the cap if each team searches for their own "designated player"? As much as he may dislike it, he may have to play in Europe to earn the wage to which he is accustomed. This is not as far-fetched as it sounds.
Other Americans in MLS could be squeezed out in the new structure. Brian Ching, Mike Magee and Justin Mapp are just a few who may decide their fortunes are better made east of the Atlantic. Johnson would be included in that group, but it is widely known that he is seeking to move to Europe anyway.
Money can be the driving force, as even some lower-tiered Euro clubs can pay players up to $200,000 per season, compared with the MLS starting salary at around $80,000.
Another question that needs to be addressed in light of the Beckham move is how it will affect the play of MLS, in particular, and of the Americans who play there. If the Euro-imports were moving in their prime, then it could have the effect of improving the overall level of play in MLS and raise Yanks' games within it.
But tell me, how many top European players are going to sacrifice top paychecks in England, Germany, Italy and Spain to play in front of 20,000 on a hot and humid New York City evening in July?
A remote chance of playing in the CONCACAF Champions Cup or a legitimate shot of playing in the Champions League (probably the best tournament in the world of ANY sport)?
Lets face it, even with the new rule, MLS will still be as likely to attract old, nearly has-been soccer players as it ever has before. They just have the ability to pay them better (are you listening, Ronaldo?).
Whether or not the play of MLS improves as a result, is questionable at best. For all the criticism a Beckham gets for his wife and luxury lifestyle, no one in my view has ever questioned his work habits or dedication to improving his game - and this is from detractors and admirers alike.
It will be very important to watch his first few games with the Galaxy. His drive and determination alone can pick up everyone around him. Players like Chris Albright, Nate Jaqua and Kyle Martino have a golden opportunity to benefit from his presence.
Younger players like Nathan Sturgis can also learn a lot from Beckham, and parlay that into a successful European adventure. Beckham can be the equivalent of John Elway, someone who takes inferior talent around him and wills it on to greater heights.
However, not everyone who comes over will have the work ethic of a David Beckham. And some will more than likely have the work rate of Lothar Matthäus, who was so lazy in his approach to the American game that he is just a blip on the foreign impact on MLS.
The difference today is, foreign stars will be exposed quickly if they are found to be going through the motions, with expensive buyout clauses becoming an unfortunate result for MLS. This is where the league must be vigilant.
The new rule also doesn't change the facts of why Yanks come here in the first place, to play with the best and better themselves on the world stage. Former Gueugnon forward Jeremiah White doesn't regret the decision at all, even if it all hasn't been paved with a bed of roses.
"I choose Europe over MLS because I have always had the desire to live and play soccer in Europe," the former Wake Forest Demon Deacon told YA's Mark Flannery recently.
White, currently on trial with Norwegian team FC Lyn Oslo (Chelsea fans will recognize that team as the former home of teenage sensation John Obi Mikel), said of his European adventure; "I have friends from all over the world, I speak three languages and remember a little bit of Greek, and to me that is valuable.
"I also wanted to experience the passion that soccer brings out in places like Greece, and to a lesser extent, France."
White sees America in his eventual future, but feels that in order to improve his game, he must play in Europe. "At some point I want to play in MLS, but for the moment, I am still incorporating pieces into my game that will give me more tools to hopefully help MLS get even stronger at some point."
Many commentators with experience of both MLS and European rate the American league as a mid-low English Championship level of play. This is a fair assessment of the current situation, and far above Matthäus's statement to German magazine Kicker.
He said that MLS was the equivalent of low level second Bundesliga in Germany... and he should know because that’s the level he played at during his very brief time with the MetroStars.
Finally, whither the success of Beckham in America? Well, he can still play at a high level, as shown by the interest that AC Milan and other giants had in him, and he is still exquisite in dead ball situations.
The feeling of this YA'er is that no matter how well he plays, it will never be enough to justify the huge contract, even if the majority of the money is through sponsorship and bonus clauses.
I also suspect that the lure of Hollywood will be too much, and we will see better performances on that new MTV show "The Beckhams" than we will at the Home Depot Center.