If there's one thing you can count on in the world of soccer, it's that any piece of news involving David Beckham, no matter how seemingly insignificant, ultimately will end up being headline news.
Except that these days, the buzz about David Beckham has been instigated by a downturn in the player's own fortunes. The speculation, of course, centers around his soon-to-expire contract (summer 2007) with Spanish giants Real Madrid, what looks to be an increasingly permanent exclusion from the English national team and the loss of his previously untouchable first-team status with his club team.
It always has been a given, based on multiple statements from the player himself, that Beckham would play in MLS at some point in his career -- the more common assumption was that it would happen at a later date when Beckham was closer to calling it a day.
However, in light of recent events, MLS has a very real window of opportunity to sign the former English captain in the near future. With the new implementation of the Designated Player Rule allowing MLS teams to potentially add as many as two players per team (although one would have to be via trade) irrespective of salary cap, the league finally has the capability to make it happen.
Even so, the prospect of Beckham in MLS has brought the obligatory naysayers out of the woodwork. Looking at the pros and cons, it's hard to see much substance in the negative connotations some believe his signing would bring.
Fact or Fiction
1. Beckham's signing will lead to the type of fiscal irresponsibility and competitive imbalance that doomed NASL.
Let's be clear, this is not NASL Part Deux. That was an era governed by financial excess and debauchery in the salaries and the off-field benefits given to the players. It's a mistake MLS won't repeat, and this new era in MLS is being ushered in far more carefully.
For a start, the salary cap still holds true and the new "Beckham Rule" allows teams to add only a maximum of two players outside the cap. When you consider that the policy change will be in effect only till 2009, then will be revisited, it's unlikely we'll see the type of free-for-all and fiscal insanity that afflicted and ruined the NASL.
2. Beckham's a has-been who is past his prime, and MLS is wrong to pin its hopes on a bench-warmer from the Spanish League.
Beckham is 31 years old not 37. If he is indeed past his prime, it's only just barely. He's still coveted by many top teams around the world, and losing his starting spot in a potent Real Madrid lineup is hardly a sign of a dramatic decline in his ability but reflects more of a philosophical change by new coach Fabio Capello and his defensive preferences.
The Beckham of today, isn't all that different from the Beckham who was part of the famed Treble-winning Manchester United squad in 1999. In many respects, he's largely the same player, a right midfielder who continues to be one of the best dead ball experts in the game and still one of the best crossers of the ball in the world. He might have lost a little foot speed, but was never fast to begin with. You easily could make the case that his technical control on the dribble has actually improved during his time in Spain, and he was a regular in the starting lineup for Real until this season.
As for his exclusion from the English national team squad -- lest people forget, he was the main source of inspiration for most of the goals England scored in the recent World Cup and over the past few years. That he's not considered one of the best 28 players available for England is perplexing, especially when England manager Steve McClaren cited Beckham's age as a negative factor yet continues to select equally old Gary Neville to his squad.
Chalk up Beckham's exile to a new manager who's anxious to distance himself from the previous regime (McClaren replaced Sven-Goran Eriksson after the World Cup) and is wary of the celebrity hoopla that often has accompanied Beckham.
Need further convincing? No less an authority than Arsenal's Arsene Wenger and Thierry Henry have spoken out in his defense. Henry told reporters recently, "I believe he still has so much to give England, and it would be a shame if he does not get another chance."
3. Beckham will dominate MLS and improve the quality of play.
From a purist's point of view, Beckham isn't the type of flair player MLS needs. He's not your classic No. 10 or playmaker, the type of player who can carry a team, take over games and dribble past people at will, in the vein of a Ronaldinho or Zidane.
He is what he is, a one-dimensional (albeit world-class in that dimension) complementary role player who probably will lead MLS in assists and goals scored from direct free kicks.
From a personnel standpoint, and given the choice between Beckham or, say, a Deco-esque player, you'd be better off with Deco. To use an NBA analogy, Beckham is after all far more akin to a Larry Hughes than a LeBron James.
Having said that, there's no question his presence will help to improve the product MLS places on the field and, more important, will help legitimize MLS not just in the eyes of foreign fans or investors but also in the eyes of foreign stars who will see that MLS might no longer necessarily be just a destination for players ready to go out to pasture. The fact that MLS can finally offer somewhat competitve salaries on a par with the European wage structure won't hurt either.
No, that doesn't mean young stars like Cristiano Ronaldo, Anderson and Cesc Fabregas will be clamoring to join MLS or even that MLS will be able to sign the next up-and-coming players of that ilk. However, it does mean MLS might be able to start picking up out-of-contract "name" players in the 28- to 32-year-old range who previously would have given MLS short shrift.
4. Beckham wants to play in MLS and play for the Galaxy.
It's not a given that Beckham will decide to sign for MLS. Although he often has said he would like to play in MLS one day, the key phrase here is one day. In an ideal world, one suspects Beckham had envisaged retiring from the English national team on his own terms and playing out one last contract with Real Madrid before riding into the sunset, i.e., MLS.
The problem is that this ideal timetable has been pushed forward and not at his behest.
For the first time, the Madrid media and fan base have ended their love affair with Beckham. They've been harshly critical of his performances of late and even questioned his professionalism. El País, the most widely circulated newspaper in Spain, recently said: "Beckham is like clockwork. He never gets injured, except when Real Madrid have been hammered."
Even in the face of such criticism, Beckham remains stoic and has said that he's not looking to talk to any clubs until the end of the summer and that he will focus on regaining his spot with both club team and country. The reality is that unless he's convinced he has no shot at regaining a place on the England team, it's still unlikely he would opt for MLS at this point. When you consider that teams such as Inter Milan and Spurs are preparing January transfer window bids for him, it may well be that Beckham feels he still has too much to offer the game at the top level to come to America.
Having said that, Beckham and his wife, Victoria, are far too PR-savvy not to realize that a player's marketing pull is still dependent on his performance on the pitch (to a degree). One has to be seen to be heard and playing competitively to be relevant (who cares about Anna Kournikova these days?). This being the case, the longer Beckham retains his bench status, the more likely he will be to leave Real, reluctant though he appears at present.
There are, of course, non-soccer factors that still could sway his decision. His wife's desire to carve out a career in U.S. television, Beckham's rumored plan to pursue a post-soccer acting career and the celebrity hobnobbing the Beckhams thrive on (they apparently are close acquaintances with the Cruises), would indicate that a move to L.A. could tempt the couple.
5. Beckham's signing would give MLS only a temporary and minor boost in publicity.
The ultimate question of course is what Beckham can do for the league off the field as well as on it. This one's a no-brainer -- in this day and age, Beckham remains arguably the most famous athlete on the planet. There were more media credentials issued for his unveiling as a Real Madrid player when he signed in 2003 than for the Oscars ceremony that same year.
What he gives MLS is an immediate GQ rating and free advertising for the league wherever he goes. Between talk show appearances, the celeb circuit and hanging with the Hollywood A-listers (it's been reported that Brad Pitt has requested soccer lessons from Beckham for his son), Beckham will give MLS a buzz and intro to mainstream pop culture it has never had before.
Merchandising? It's no secret that signing Beckham means an increase in shirt sales and general merchandising revenues; it's part of the reason Real signed him, after all (cynics would argue the only reason). If he signs for MLS, and for L.A. in particular, you're likely to see Galaxy shirts worn throughout Asia and even the potential of selling broadcast rights to MLS games featuring Beckham to countries such as China and Japan.
This is no crazy pipe dream, either. In Asia, most soccer fans follow individual players, not teams, and Beckham remains the most revered, deservedly or not. You're talking about a player who is literally worshipped in countries such as Japan and Thailand. Disbelieving skeptics only have to visit the Beckham statues that exist on the Japanese island of Awajishima and the Wat Pariwas Buddhist temple in Thailand and observe fans praying to their "deity."
The very real fact is that regardless of how one views his actual skill as a player, Beckham nearly pays for himself in his ability to impact the financial bottom line.
Given the reasons stated above, it's still hard to believe there remain fans in this country who are vehemently opposed to Beckham's signing. If anything, these fans are guilty of reverse Euro-snobbery, the tired argument that MLS should be above signing big-name foreign players who somehow would stunt the development of homegrown U.S. talent and taint the integrity of the American game.
What Beckham would give MLS is a boost, a shot in the arm any sports league would welcome no matter how successful it already is. He's guaranteed to raise short-term interest in the league and put more seats in the stands. Will the interest level be maintained after he's gone or even after his first season? It's doubtful unless the product on the field as a whole is improved, but what he does give MLS is the chance and opportunity to become more relevant to an American public for the first time.
Jen Chang is the U.S. editor for ESPNsoccernet and also writes a blog Armchair Musings. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.