Life after David

wsc299 Ian Plenderleith asks: How will football in America move forward without the newly crowned MLS Cup-winner David Beckham?

Major League Soccer has learned one major lesson from the big leagues in Europe it aspires to eventually compete with, and that is the ability to blow its own trumpet. Crowds are up! Sponsorship and TV revenues are up! New stadiums are being built! We are expanding the number of teams every season! Big name players are coming from abroad!

That is the public relations checklist, and they’re all true. But at 16 years old, this is still very much a teenage league with some growing up to do, particularly in terms of the quality of its football. The cocky pubescent may think he already knows it all, but wise old men who saw the demise of the North American Soccer League would counsel caution.

The US media universally agreed that the big story in the 2011 MLS season was David Beckham’s “Hollywood ending” to his $32.5 million (now £24.4m), five-year contract with the LA Galaxy, who won the MLS Cup in their own stadium with a slightly scraggy 1-0 win over the Houston Dynamo. Most commentators have disregarded all Beckham’s injuries, the resentments of his fellow players, the international call-ups (including a trip to the royal wedding), and the threats to leave early and extend his on-loan stay at AC Milan. They jumped to see the league’s progress over the past five years as vindication of the original decision to sign him to such a lucrative salary, albeit to play alongside dozens of young players who earn barely enough to pay their rent.

It would be a brave writer who claimed that the league has progressed in spite of Beckham, not because of him. Beckham himself told ESPN that his stay has been a success “especially off the field”. His mantra has been that it was his main role to help “grow the game” in the US. And there’s no denying that his influence in the past half decade has been massive. Only, it is not really because of anything he has done, it is just because of who he is. Beckham has been the world’s most expensive existential prop, albeit one that came with the shaky promise of fiscal returns.

So, the league is bigger, but is it any better? In parts. The actual story is the emergence of the Galaxy as the league’s dominant side. They were not only champions, but won the Supporters’ Shield, which goes to the team with the best regular season record. They won that last year too, and in 2009 they were losing finalists. No single team has so dominated the league since DC United in the early years, but that was more an accidental alignment of class players in a league of desperately poor quality.

There are those arguing that such a team is exactly what MLS needs. Revolving title-winners are all very democratic, but in MLS they only serve to reflect a mediocre pool of talent. The Galaxy have become a team for others to not just instinctively and intensely dislike, but one that they should aspire to beat and better.

Indirectly, Beckham triggered this when the league changed its rules five years ago, allowing clubs to sign a single Designated Player on big wages. That has since been increased to three, and it was exactly LA’s three Designated Players – Beckham, Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan – who combined to score the winning goal in the final, and who formed the backbone of the Galaxy as an attacking force.

The rest of the league have two options. Their owners can invest similar cash in ageing foreign stars and hope that it pays off in both sporting and financial terms, or they can continue to rely on coaches savvy enough to assemble a cheap squad that gels. That worked for previous title-winners from Colorado (2010), Salt Lake (2009) and Columbus (2008), none of whom had Designated Players. But this is starting to feel like the old way of doing things. Of those three teams, only Salt Lake have remained consistent, narrowly losing the Concacaf Champions League final in April. Even they, however, were well beaten by the Galaxy in this year’s MLS Cup semi-final.

Then again, there are the expensive but physical and ill-tempered New York Red Bulls, who signed Thierry Henry and Rafael Marquez, yet barely scraped into the play-offs before going down to LA. The Galaxy’s coach Bruce Arena, while happy to employ Keane and Beckham, has also bemoaned an over-reliance on imports and a failure on the part of some clubs to develop young American players, despite the burgeoning club academy system.

Arena’s own strong, young and all-American defence is testimony to his skill in mixing the stars with the kind of nascent talent that will be crucial to the league’s staying power. There will be life beyond Beckham for MLS, but further growth will require substance, not just publicity.

From WSC 299 January 2012