|By Jeff Kassouf
Should David Beckham go on loan to AC Milan in January, as all reports seem to indicate, most casual soccer fans in the United States will be quick to shout that his presence was just another failed attempt to make soccer the next big thing in the US. ‘It will never succeed,’ they will echo like a parrot. ‘Not even Beckham could make it happen.’
As big of a hit that Major League Soccer might take in the media – and yes, it would take a hit since the casual American has no idea what a loan deal is – this potential move could be a blessing in disguise for the league.
Both soccer supporters and naysayers can agree that the novelty of “The Beckham Effect” has worn off. Just look at the crowds. The electric crowd of over 60,000 that filled Giants’ Stadium in 2007 was a much more mundane crowd of a little over half that this year.
The media attention is not what it used to be, either. There is no longer blurbs about Beckham on SportsCenter, and the game reports of local newspapers when the Galaxy are on the road no longer find the draw to be back page worthy.
Arguably, the loan to AC Milan may regenerate some attention for Beckham and Major League Soccer. The American and even worldwide media will certainly cover the transaction, as they are already with the speculation of it. It may also present an opportunity for MLS to bring in some Italian fans and expose them to the league.
At the same time, the casual soccer fan in the United States may have trouble understanding exactly what a loan is. It is another one of those soccer jargon terms that seem to present barriers for converting casual fans. To the American media, this will be a perfect opportunity to proclaim the failure and departure of Beckham. In fact, it has already started.
There is also the fear that the deal may be anything but temporary. Los Angeles has missed the playoffs for three consecutive years, the last two with Beckham on the squad (though sparsely in 2007). Beckham is determined to have one last hurrah on the international level in South Africa in 2010, and he knows that the current level that LA is at will not do.
While this is strictly speculation, these would be valid reasons for Beckham to leave LA permanently. His loyalty to England and himself is certainly going to come above that of the Galaxy, and Brand Beckham seems to always find a positive PR spin on anything. Many would say this would be another tragic failure for the world to point and laugh at Major League Soccer.
Really, it might be a good thing.
No matter how well the Galaxy do in drafting young talent or trading around some fringe players, the team simply cannot make any improvement until they lose some of their large salaries that prevent them from signing a deeper squad. Obviously, Beckham and Donovan are the two biggest salary earners, both of whom are Designated Players.
Granted, Donovan has admitted he may look to give Europe another go, but if it came down to the Galaxy deciding to have some guts and dump either him or Beckham to rebuild the team, Donovan would actually be the smartest choice.
Beckham has obviously already lost a step, and realistically he will be looking at retirement in the next two years. Should he fulfill his dream of playing in one last World Cup, the end of that competition would certainly bring the end to his career.
Donovan, on the other hand, is still in his prime, and his pure speed and attacking presence is much more of a threat to opposing defenses. Beckham has been a world-class player for years, while Donovan has never done more than conquer Major League Soccer. In their respective primes, there is no question who the better player is.
However, the Galaxy cannot live in the past and continue to base the team around two main players. Los Angeles has done themselves no favors by consistently signing old and mediocre players over the past few seasons, ultimately leading to their downfall.
In order to clear room in the salary cap, LA needs to dump some of these salaries, and while it can do so by getting rid of burdens such as Greg Vanney, Eduardo Dominguez, and other big earning-little producing players, Beckham may not be as big of a loss as some think.
The general awareness of Major League Soccer was raised to immeasurable proportions when he arrived, and while LA’s road draw has dropped off this year, league attendance is still up. Places like Chicago (all be it with Blanco) and Toronto are selling out, and Columbus is a shining example of a much improved and expanded fan base.
Therefore, Beckham, along with the aid of many other factors such as new stadiums, better supporting players and improved marketing, has done what he was brought in to do. He has raised the national and worldwide presence of Major League Soccer and boosted sales. Now, Los Angeles must focus on winning on the field, which is in the best interest of its image and the image of the league.
Is Beckham’s move to Milan a possible permanent ploy to escape a below average MLS setting in favor of a few more years of European soccer? Probably not, but even if it were, it should not be looked at in a completely negative light. Soon, Major League Soccer needs to find the next generation of Beckham, Blanco and Schelotto, and it needs to do it before they all leave and there is a transitional period that lacks true icons for fans to latch onto.
Major League Soccer’s slow, long-term plan for growth is starting to take form, meaning it is time to continue to bring in even more talent. Pretty soon, the league will find these alternative – preferably younger and still in-prime – players to its current superstars, and continue to grow. The work of Beckham and Blanco, among others, will always be appreciated, but the league must also focus on its future.
Jeff Kassouf is a staff writer for The New Paltz Times and a freelance writer who covers soccer, and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org