Introspection is only natural in situations like this. With or without David Beckham involved, an end to any era always prompts the kind of Hornby-esque, what-does-it-all-mean soul-searching that most of us, as American soccer fans, are already doing. That Beckham serves as the main actor in our drama only makes it inevitable.
Even so, in the aftermath of the Beckham Bombshell, it's important not to take all of this too far.
The situation is this: Beckham is leaving the Los Angeles Galaxy. The MLS Cup final on Dec. 1 will be his final match with the club.
This is undeniably a big deal. And yet, as he leaves the Galaxy, possibly for far-away shores, it would be a mistake to rush into making grand pronouncements about Beckham's legacy and effect on the sport in America.
Beckham is, after all, only a man, and the process is still running. Global fame and all, Beckham is not and never was the sport's savior in America (assuming such a singular figure will ever exist). Major League Soccer will go on, and the game will continue to grow in the United States.
Before and after Beckham, soccer was and is still the world's most popular sport. His arrival has increased its popularity in America, but soccer still lags behind other sports in a crowded landscape. The Beckham Experiment must be considered a success overall, but work remains to be done, and MLS remains for now a second-tier league, or worse.
Beckham, in other words, did exactly what he was supposed to do. He did no more and no less.
In a brilliant article this week at SB Nation, English writer Graham MacAree pointed out a signature quirk of American soccer culture. American soccer fans, MacAree would argue, tend to ascribe cosmic importance to just about everything, including the meaning of the game in relation to the human experience and the world around us.
I would argue that the Beckham era serves as a classic example. Beckham signed with Los Angeles in 2007, and immediately the move was hailed as a new era for American soccer. In summary, a legitimate superstar, equally famous for his performance on the pitch and profile off it, was "invading" America in order to popularize the game (via the Associated Press).
Similar language popped up surrounding Beckham's announcement Monday. In his public statement, MLS commissioner Don Garber included these lines (per MLSSoccer.com):
When David Beckham signed with the LA Galaxy in 2007, he set out to help grow MLS and the sport of soccer in North America. There is no doubt that MLS is far more popular and important here and abroad than it was when he arrived.
Garber is right (more on that momentarily), but the point here is that Beckham's time in America was never just about playing soccer. More than just playing the sport, Beckham was expected to evangelize America's unbelieving masses.
The American soccer public has always viewed Beckham through that lens, and that fact has limited the way we have been able to think about him. As he leaves Los Angeles, it's time we looked at the whole picture.
By the time he arrived in Los Angeles, Beckham had already passed his peak. Even so, he gave us several memorable moments, from his match-winning assist in last year's MLS final to a series of trademark free kicks and high-quality goals.
The goals and assists were part of a playing record with the Galaxy that included one MLS Cup title, four playoff berths, three appearances in the cup final and a spot on the MLS Best XI in 2011.
That is a successful record, if not overwhelmingly so. His record in evangelizing unbelievers looks similar.
MLS has expanded by seven teams since Beckham signed with the Galaxy in January of 2007. The league now features 19 clubs, 15 of which play in soccer-specific stadiums like Los Angeles' Home Depot Center.
To outsiders, that might not sound impressive. For American soccer fans who followed MLS through the days of empty NFL cathedrals, it represents major progress.
Attendance has soared during the Beckham era. Early in Beckham's Galaxy career, more than 66,000 spectators came to watch him play in New York (per the New York Times). In 2011, MLS passed the NBA as America's third-most attended professional sports league (via Sporting News).
But while attendance has improved, strong ratings have not followed (via The Big Lead). Still, television network NBC made a big-money move for English Premier League rights this fall (via New York Times), which suggests interest in the sport as a whole has never been higher.
Beckham's presence has revolutionized the pay structure of the league. The designated player rule was established ahead of his arrival, and as the Los Angeles Times points out, more teams are paying players better salaries than ever:
Beckham's original five-year, $32.5-million deal made him worth more than the entire roster of any other MLS team. But by the time he signed a contract extension in January, his $4-million guaranteed salary was less than the New York Red Bulls were paying former Mexican national team captain Raffa Marquez and French World Cup star Thierry Henry, two of the 31 designated players to play in MLS last season.
As more teams and higher-profile players joined the league, Beckham remained a crossover superstar. Beckham's "bromance" with actor Tom Cruise is well documented, and he made headlines with a racy underwear campaign for retailer H&M earlier this year. Beckham even has a profile at People Magazine, an icon of American pop culture.
During his time in the league, MLS has added teams, built new stadiums and signed better players than ever for more money than ever. Beckham is not directly responsible for these changes, but the role his crossover popularity in American pop culture has played in popularizing soccer cannot be ignored. The boom has come along with Beckham's presence, and that cannot be entirely a coincidence.
Attendance is up, and although ratings remain low, NBC's acquisition of exclusive Premier League TV rights suggests even more people soon will be exposed to the game. For now, though, the sport remains in its niche in America, potentially ready to break out.
Altogether, Beckham's tenure in Southern California has been both successful in some ways and unsuccessful in others. As American soccer fans, the tendency here might be to overstate Beckham's importance. But maybe we should take the time to appreciate him as a player and look back on what has been an immensely interesting ride these past few years.
Beckham was not and is not the savior of soccer in America. That's fine. The 2011 season was his best with the Galaxy, and 2012 hasn't been too far off. Amid all the other stuff, it's easy to forget that even at 37, Beckham is an important piece of a team that's preparing to play for a second straight league title.
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