MLS needs quality of play to step up
David Beckham is here and all most people want to talk about is whether he will be able to make Major League Soccer's $250 million investment worthwhile. What needs to be realized is that it isn't solely up to Beckham to make the investment a success.
Millions of eyes will be on Beckham when he finally does take the field in a Galaxy uniform and those same eyes will be on players and teams throughout the league. Soccer fans who haven't previously given MLS a serious look and casual sports fans who don't normally watch soccer will tune in to see Beckham in his new league. Once they do, it will take more than Beckham to entertain them.
Will Beckham's teammates and opponents take full advantage of that attention? Will MLS teams rise to the occasion and deliver better soccer for the massive audience that Beckham is drawing in? They had better, because the blinding spotlight that is shining on the league right now isn't going to be around forever.
The Galaxy has made moves in recent weeks to build a veteran roster that is supposed to be well-equipped to handle the pressure of playing with Beckham and playing in the spotlight he is bringing along. Galaxy president Alexi Lalas insists his team is ready to turn around the early-season struggles that have the team sitting below .500 and out of a playoff spot.
Will the Galaxy really play better? It should, not only because of Beckham's arrival (and he will be an impact player) but also because of the steady presence of Landon Donovan (who missed several games due to U.S. national team duty) and the recent arrivals of veterans Abel Xavier, Carlos Pavon and Chris Klein. With all that talent on the roster, and Frank Yallop as coach, the Galaxy will be required to not only start winning, but also playing attractive and entertaining soccer.
The same goes for a league that has a history of seeing its quality dip in the summer months. There is no debating that the quality of soccer in MLS today is significantly better than it was just a few years ago, but there is also no denying that the quality of soccer during the dog days of summer drops, with teams almost always saving their best for the end of the season and the playoffs.
Whether a product of a playoff format that has eight of 13 teams qualify, games played in front of sparse crowds at times, and teams worn down by steamy weather, summer MLS games can sometimes be ugly encounters where teams don't play as sharply as they do in the fall. That can't happen this summer, not with so many new fans giving the league a chance and so much attention being driven by Beckham-mania.
Skeptics probably think the quality of soccer can't improve that much, but MLS teams show every year that they can kick it up a few notches late in the season -- playoff and late-season games are oftentimes the most exciting and entertaining.
It won't hurt to have sellout and near sellout crowds at every stop along the Beckham Tour. It is only natural for players to be more motivated by large crowds and that should help elevate the quality of games Beckham is involved in. That is what critics of MLS often ignore, the fact that even Ronaldinho and Kaká would struggle to generate their usual magic playing in 90-degree heat in front of crowds of less than 10,000.
Not only will MLS players be motivated by more fans in the stands, but also by even more scouts paying attention to a league that was already starting to draw more interest from foreign clubs. There will be international media attending Beckham's matches and MLS players who impress are sure to grab a few headlines and potentially interest foreign teams.
Players aren't the only ones who need to step up during the Beckham craze. Far too many MLS coaches use conservative tactics, particularly on the road. Nobody is saying to attack with reckless abandon, but having teams playing 10 men behind the ball with the world watching isn't exactly helping the league. I know some coaches will argue that every point counts and their jobs are on the line but do soccer coaches anywhere in the world have more job security than MLS coaches? Stop playing for ties people.
Then there are the referees, who have been woefully inconsistent in MLS this year. Refs are sure to face scrutiny over how they call Beckham games, and whether they are going to protect Beckham. The reality is that MLS referees don't do enough to protect attacking players so it wouldn't actually be a bad thing if match officials were given a mandate to try and root out the rough defending that is too often allowed in MLS.
There is no denying that Beckham will be the man with the most pressure on him, but he is also the most well equipped to handle it. Having already been a worldwide star for the past decade, Beckham is more than familiar with expectations and scrutiny and pressure. For his teammates, opponents and Major League Soccer as a whole, it will be a new experience, and an opportunity they all need to make the most of if the Beckham Experiment is to be truly successful.
Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He is a writer and columnist for the Herald News (N.J.) and writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.