Major League Soccer in many ways has gotten what it asked for when it signed David Beckham to a ridiculous contract in January. By making the league appear desperate for a savior when it need not have, rearranging the schedule to showcase Beckham and making one of its worst teams the symbol of the league abroad, MLS has appeared to this point to strike out on all three counts. That’s a pity because this season from a quality of play standpoint has been the best in the history of the league. Contrary to the spin that comes from the league, the level of play has NOT consistently improved throughout the twelve years of MLS’ existence. In fact I would strongly argue the league’s play was of a much higher standard in 2000 than in 2005. Not only do I believe that is the case, but results of MLS clubs in international competitions and in friendlies versus clubs from bigger and more prestigious leagues bears out that reality.
Despite its bluster about constant improvement in the league, I suspect Don Garber and the brass of MLS realized that they had to make great strides in 2007, especially following the fashionable bashing of MLS in the press after the US bowed out of World Cup 2006 with just one draw and two losses. MLS made the moves it had to acquiring quality internationals like Juan Toja, Pablo Richetti, Guillermo Baros Schelotto, Cuauhtemoc Blanco, Paulo Wanchope, Luciano Emilio, Fred, Juan Pablo Angel, Carlos Marinelli and Abel Xavier this season. These signings are a big reason why MLS 2007 has been a pleasure to watch, and the aforementioned names represent the best collective group of international signings by MLS since at least 2000, and perhaps ever in the league’s history. This is in addition to the Superliga Tournament which showcased MLS’ clubs in an ultra competitive international competition where the league’s clubs more than passed the test of demonstrating the quality of MLS in 2007. Additionally, the league is in better financial standing than ever before, with a lucrative TV contract (negotiated before David Beckham signed) and more and more Soccer specific stadiums being erected around the league.
But in a major marketing folly, based once again on winning acceptance with the anti soccer sports establishment rather than winning respect and acceptance among Latino and European soccer fans in the US, the MLS has put everything on Beckham. That’s too much for one player to burden, albeit a world class player of unmatched professionalism and personal character like David Beckham. Nor is it fair, considering MLS has done what it had to do in order to improve its product with or without David Beckham. Now with Beckham injured and not playing in front of sold out stadiums on the road, MLS has become a laughing stock and has given additional fodder to the anti soccer sports media establishment who bashed Beckham (without knowing anything about the man himself) and MLS with the precision of well planned air strike on a defenseless city. By making Beckham, and not the ultimate improvement of the league the issue, MLS has helped to dig its own grave with the US Sports snob establishment.
David Beckham ultimately will play and contribute to the continued improvement in the league’s quality. But the circus atmosphere that surrounded his arrival and the way his signing way handled by Major League Soccer ultimately has been counterproductive to the continued growth of the league and the sport in the United States.