US soccer’s white knight rides in

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After a week of adulatory welcomes, the saviour of American soccer may finally throw on some shorts and take to the pitch on Saturday. Injury permitting (he has been nursing a bad ankle this month), David Beckham is scheduled to make his first appearance for the Los Angeles Galaxy on Saturday night in an exhibition game against English side Chelsea.

In the lead-up to Beckham’s debut, there has been much excited chatter about the benefits that might accrue to Major League Soccer now that this global icon is going to be wearing its uniform. But does American soccer need a saviour and is an extravagantly priced import really in its best interest?

It is plainly in Beckham’s interest. The 32-year-old midfielder was hired away from Real Madrid with a five-year, $32.5m contract (the median MLS salary is $53,000) and the prospect of a gushing embrace from the city’s glitterati, not least his new friend and Beverly Hills neighbour, the actor Tom Cruise. No question, Los Angeles is a better place to transition from one glam career to another than either of those comparative backwaters, Madrid and Manchester. And for an ageing soccer star looking to ease into retirement, it is certainly hard to beat balmy Southern California.

But the issue, of course, is not what America offers Beckham but what he can offer it. Not surprisingly, much of the European commentary regarding Beckham’s Stateside move has been condescending, portraying America as a country that remains immune to soccer’s charms. But even some of the reporting in the US, though not so cliché-driven, has cast Beckham in the role of missionary, coming to convert Americans to soccer. The cover of Sports Illustrated said it all. It showed a photo of Beckham, standing on a red carpet, under the headline: “David Beckham: Will He Change the Fate of American Soccer?”

American soccer aficionados should hope not. The game is thriving at the participatory level – in fact, it is the most popular team sport among US youngsters. Turning those children into loyal spectators has long been a problem and it remains one. But the MLS is in its 12th season, and though it has not truly become a major league, it seems to have at least established itself as a permanent one, a point underscored by the fact that seven of its 13 teams now play in soccer-specific stadiums. The league’s average attendance last year was 15,500 and it is on course this season to repeat that performance. By comparison, the National Basketball Association averaged about 17,700 fans per game during the 2006-2007 season, and the National Hockey League drew just under 17,000 per game. So far as attendance is concerned, the arrow is clearly pointing in the right direction for the MLS, which is more than can be said for some European leagues (average attendance in Italy’s Serie A has fallen below 19,000 per game, a decline of 40 per cent in the past decade).

But, since its inception, the MLS has been haunted by the example of its long-defunct predecessor, the North American Soccer League. The MLS was set up as a single-entity structure, in which the league itself approves player salaries and many revenues are shared equally among the clubs, in order to avoid repeating the experience of the NASL, in which one team, the New York Cosmos, had most of the money and most of the talent and everyone else more or less starved. But the example of the NASL also haunts its successor league in another way. In spite of the fatally flawed business model, the Cosmos and the NASL managed, for one fleeting moment, to make soccer king in America.

As it happens, this year marks the 30th anniversary of that improbable turn of events, when Americans en masse embraced a no-hands sport. It was during the summer of 1977 that the Cosmos, led by Pele, Franz Beckenbauer, Giorgio Chinaglia, and Carlos Alberto, began attracting huge crowds to the newly built Giants Stadium, just across the Hudson River from Manhattan. The spectator surge reached its zenith in August, when the team filled all 77,000 seats for a home play-off game. The Cosmos remained a strong box-office draw for the next few seasons but interest soon collapsed and by 1985, the club and the league were both history.

The NASL’s brief ascendancy is now looked back on as an aberrant development in a year full of them – 1977 was, of course, the height of the disco era (enough said), and it was an especially strange and unsettling year for New York, which suffered a catastrophic blackout that July and which was also gripped by fear caused by the Son of Sam serial killer. In this febrile atmosphere, soccer got hot and then flamed out just as quickly. Nonetheless, the NASL, for a short period, put up the kind of attendance figures that, three decades on, MLS executives can hardly even imagine.

But Mark Abbott, MLS president, insists this is no indictment of his league. He contends that the MLS is on far more solid ground financially and will thus have staying power that the earlier league did not. He says the MLS will also prove to be a more durable product because it is has a vastly larger fan base upon which to draw. The comparative attendance figures would seem to contradict him but Abbott points out that there were not many soccer fans in America in the 1970s and suggests that the NASL prospered, briefly, mostly because of curiosity about Pele and because it was such a novelty. He says that 30 years later, thanks in part to the interest generated by the NASL, soccer enjoys a robust following in the US. He notes that last year’s World Cup final was watched by 17m people in America and that the semi-finals and final of last month’s CONCACAF Gold Cup, held in the US and won by the US national side, drew more than 50,000 fans.

“With many businesses, you have to create the market,” says Abbott. “We don’t need to create a market for soccer – it already exists. We just need to be able to claim a bigger share of it.”

And that is where Beckham comes in. Abbott says there are many passionate soccer fans in the US who have yet to be won over by the MLS and that putting better teams on the field is one way of attracting their attention and holding it.

He says it is also a way of giving top American players incentive to stay home rather than join European clubs. “The league recognises that improving the quality of play is one of the keys to growth,” he says, “and bringing in players like Beckham is part of that process.” But he adds that while other marquee names from abroad will inevitably be joining Beckham in America, the MLS is not going to open the door to a stampede of them, nor will it change its policies and allow teams to start bulking up their rosters with high-priced foreign talent, à la the Cosmos. The MLS hopes to fill as many seats as the NASL did in its prime but is more interested in avoiding the NASL’s ultimate fate.

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