How will MLS cope without David Beckham?

Posted by Roger Bennett

Has an athlete's star wattage ever eclipsed that of the league in the way David Beckham has Major League Soccer? Michael Jordan and the NBA, or Wayne Gretzky and the NHL, perhaps. Yet where those men transcended pro sports with their play, the 37-year-old Englishman has held sway with buzz and hype.

Beckham's decision to leave the LA Galaxy has commandeered the media's bandwidth before Saturday's MLS Cup. Questions surrounding his legacy and next steps abound, even smothering Landon Donovan's protracted career deliberations, and threatening to relegate their opponents, the Houston Dynamo, to the role of movie extras.

Whether Beckham and his team win on Saturday, once the iconic midfielder has swerved his last free kick toward an MLS goal, the league will have to work out how it adjusts to his absence and define a post-stardust strategy.

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In an interview with ESPN, which you can see throughout the day on "SportsCenter" and in its entirety on ESPN during the MLS Cup pregame show, Beckham was both constructive and diplomatic when addressing the issue. Reflecting on his 2007 league debut, the Galaxy star said: "When I first arrived, I was excited, and then when I first played my first game, I was like, ‘OK. This is going to be tough.' "

But he was eager to underline how much the league has improved. "It's a lot better now than it was six years ago," he said. "The owners have stepped up and have bought these new stadiums, six new expansion teams coming into the league in six years, six new stadiums being built solely for soccer. That's a big thing."

The player refused to define his role, saying only, "I think that's up for other people to decide how much credit I kind of take for, what's happened in the last six years."

The player addressed his future in broad strokes that Beckham-ologists may mine at their leisure: "My commitment to the Galaxy, my commitment to MLS doesn't ever change," he said. "When I came here six years ago, I said that I was committed to being an ambassador for this game and for this league in this country. I don't think we will ever leave here full-time. This will always be a part of our lives and will always be regarded as our home as well as the UK. But I think we will probably spend some more time back in the UK and in Europe."

Beckham concluded his interview on a note of hope. "I do believe that this league will contend with the big leagues in the future," he said. "Just think about it -- we're only 17 years old. That's young for a league, yet the giant steps we've made in the last six years have been real big ones so I want to be part of what happens in the future with this."

Not everyone shares Beckham's sense of optimism. ESPN.com senior NBA writer Marc Stein compared the global icon's departure to Jordan's retirement. "The NBA was able to regenerate but it took a while for the league to weather the hit," he said. "Even though Shaq [O'Neal] and Kobe [Bryant] were already in the league, between Jordan's retirement and the first lockout, it was not until 2003 when Carmelo [Anthony], Dwyane Wade and LeBron [James] joined that the NBA turned itself around."

Stein's main concern focused on the talent supply. "The NBA has something MLS does not, which is an endless supply of world-class players. Who is MLS going to turn to who has Beckham's profile and ability to draw in the casual fan?"

Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber remembers Jordan's retirement well. "I was working at the NFL and all of the pundits declared the NBA would never be the same, but Jordan became like a prophet that stayed connected to the league and made sure people from around the globe still wanted to be 'like Mike.' MLS will experience a similar phenomenon with David," Garber said. "The league will not suffer. Our teams are more popular now. Our owners more focused, we have more stadia, media partners and sponsors, and most importantly, our country cares more about soccer."

Garber was candid on the subject of how the league plans to replace Beckham's star power. "We won't be able to replicate that," he said, "but we are left with a league that is far more credible, that more people want to associate with, sponsor, and broadcast. We don't need to have the David Beckham effect to drive the future. We just need good teams, good players, and terrific competition."

Garber points to the global interest in the upcoming MLS Cup game to bolster his position. "157 countries from around the world will broadcast our final on Saturday. Next year, do I believe it will drop to 150 because David is gone? No. I believe it will grow to 170."

When asked to identify the new face of a post-Beckham MLS, Garber countered with an alternative vision. "We did not make David the face of the league. The public and the media did," he stated. "What we are eager to do now is have the teams and the supporters movements be MLS' face. It is our incredible supporter culture -- the atmosphere in our stadia -- that sets us apart. We did not have that culture in 2007. Now we do. Our fans will be the new David Beckham."

Roger Bennett is a columnist for ESPN FC and, with Michael Davies, is one of Grantland's "Men In Blazers." Follow him on Twitter @rogbennett.

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