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Godfrey's Column

David Beckham Compelled A Nation to Notice Soccer

For all of his flaws, temper tantrums, and dubious decisions, David Beckham became a tremendous ambassador for the American game. He put the "major league" in Major League Soccer.
BY John Godfrey Posted
November 21, 2012
7:58 AM
I admit it. I used to be one of Them.

A Eurocentric Snob. A Major League Soccer Hater. Or, to be more specific, a Major League Soccer Ignorer.

But then David Beckham arrived in America, and I couldn't avert my gaze. For me, and for countless others like me, the former Manchester United midfielder focused a megawatt spotlight on a league that was living in the shadows. His incredible technique, his fiery passion, his flair for the dramatic—both the good kind and the not-so-good kind—forced us to pay attention.

On Tuesday Beckham announced that the MLS Cup Final on December 1 will be his final match for the Los Angeles Galaxy. He's leaving MLS, at least as a player. He was a tremendous asset to the league on so many levels, and he will be missed.

I'll miss him, that's for sure. The league will too.

A little backstory: I discovered the beautiful game during time spent in England in the early 1990s, and I developed an affinity for soccer watching the likes of Peter Beardsley, Eric Cantona, and Dennis Bergkamp. I was hypnotized by the spectacle of it all—I loved seeing these tremendously gifted athletes going all out for 90 minutes in front of wildly passionate crowds. Even though I grew up watching and playing baseball and football and basketball and hockey, once I got a taste of European soccer, I abandoned those other sports and concentrated my obsession exclusively on the world's game.

When MLS debuted in 1996, I tried to like it. I really did. But it was too slow for me. Too plodding. The stars weren't big enough, and neither were the crowds. The overall spectacle was, to my discerning and demanding eye, non-existent.

I probably should have been more patient with the league, I should have suffered through more midsummer Tampa Bay Mutiny—Columbus Crew contests, but that's just not who I am. I don't believe in making entertainment choices based on some sense of duty or obligation. I want what I want, I like what I like, and at the time I didn't like MLS. It made a poor first impression with me and I stopped paying attention. My obsession with soccer continued to grow, but I completely ignored America's domestic league in favor of the English Premier League, Champions League, and the U.S. national team.

But then Beckham arrived and everything changed. The same man who played for Sir Alex Ferguson and alongside Roy Keane and Paul Ince and Ole Gunnar Solskjær was coming here? To America? To MLS? OK, Commissioner Garber—you have my attention now.

I soon began watching more MLS matches. At first it was just to see what Beckham would do, but along the way I couldn't help but notice that the overall quality of the league had improved tremendously. It wasn't EPL level, but it was more than just a half-step above NCAA soccer. A bunch of my U.S. national team favorites played prominent roles in MLS. There were plenty of talented players from abroad. This league, it seemed, had arrived.

And then Beckham arrived in my neighborhood for his New York-area debut with the Galaxy. I was one of the 66,238 fans in attendance at Giants Stadium on August 18, 2007. Beckham had two sparkling assists. A 17-year-old kid named Jozy Altidore scored two goals. Juan Pablo Angel—another EPL veteran!—played great. The scene was electric.

Like most of the people there, I went to the match because of Beckham. Like many of the people there, I left the match with a completely different attitude about MLS.

"If this league is capable of producing this level of drama and energy," I remember saying to myself, "then I want in." And I've stayed in. And I'm glad for it because along the way I got to enjoy wonderful moments like this...

...and this...

...and this:

Beckham made multiple missteps during his six years in America. I still can't believe he skipped a league contest to go play in Gary Neville's testimonial match/retirement party. And much of what's wrong about Beckham's time in the U.S. is on vivid display in Grant Wahl's excellent book, "The Beckham Experiment."

But as his time as an MLS player winds down, I prefer to think about the considerable positives Beckham brought to the league: the ridiculous skill; the determination he showed by retrieving any ball he inadvertently gave away; the commitment to winning every time he stepped on the pitch.

He also brought me to the league, and for that I am particularly grateful.

"I've had an incredibly special time playing for the LA Galaxy," Beckham said on Tuesday. "However, I wanted to experience one last challenge before the end of my playing career. I don't see this as the end of my relationship with the league as my ambition is to be part of the ownership structure in the future."

Beckham has one more game to play, and I will be watching. And thanks in large part to him, I will be watching MLS long after he leaves, too.

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