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David Beckham in action
Once considered a minor sport in America, soccer has begun its ascent into joining the ranks of the big four major sports in the U.S. While the NBA, NFL, NHL and MLB will always dominate the headlines, the recent FIFA World Cup shed light on the growing popularity of soccer in North America.
With record numbers of Americans tuning into watch the FIFA World Cup games, and not just the ones the US National team was involved in, the sport is beginning to gain the popularity it so rightly deserves. The sport has especially gained a foothold in the minds of the public ever since the arrival of David Beckham to the LA Galaxy in 2007.
The signing of David Beckham from Spanish giant Real Madrid created headlines around the world and was supposed to ignite the passion for soccer in the States. There was a lot of pressure on the Englishman to deliver brilliance every time he stepped onto the pitch. He was not only supposed to carry his new team to a MLS championship, but he was also saddled with the duties of being the face of the league in all their marketing campaigns. Although this was not something new for Beckham, it was still a lot of pressure for any player to shoulder, even the highest-paid player in the league.
At 35 years-old, Beckham is still quite capable of creating brilliant plays on the field but when he chose to play in the US he realized his biggest impact would be made off the field as a spokesman for the game.
Growing the Game
This is not the first time that an international superstar tried to make soccer popular in America. In the mid-1970’s the North American Soccer League (NASL) also made a splash by signing international players to their rosters. Most notably, Brazilian legend Pele and renowned German great Franz Beckenbauer, played for the New York Cosmos and Dutch superstar Johan Cruyff played for the Los Angeles Aztecs. Although these players were super stars in their home country, their status didn’t carry much weight on American soil. This was mainly attributed to the lack of exposure to international soccer to the average American during that era.
The NASL and the US Soccer Federation did have another plan to increase the interest in soccer, and that was by making a bid for the 1986 FIFA World Cup. The bid ended up losing out to Mexico and with that loss the dream of a professional soccer league in the US died.
The dream came to life again when the United States was finally awarded the 1994 World Cup, which led to the creation of a new professional soccer league – the MLS which started play in 1996. The buzz around the World Cup was immense and was reflected in the attendance as it set the record for the highest turnout of any World Cup. Some of those young fans obviously took a liking to the game because participation in youth soccer in the United States has grown in leaps and bounds and these kids are now a part of the ticket buying public that are supporting the MLS.
Those fans that were raised on the 1994 World Cup and grew up watching and following international superstars were excited when Beckham arrived on the American shores. With the arrival of the British star came all the pomp and circumstance of royalty. Beckham, along with his wife Victoria, formerly of the Spice Girls, in tow made several public appearances around Los Angeles. They were everywhere and the media circus followed his every move, but fans and celebrity hounds alike still wanted more. There was simply too much pressure on him from every angle – there was no way for him to live up to the hype.
Beckham struggled initially on the field because of injuries, but to be honest the team simply did not have the talent to support him either, as the Galaxy finished with a 9-14-7 that season. Beckham soon went from poster boy to the target of blame by both the fans and the media. The talk of Beckham being an overpriced commercial for the league grew ever louder when the Galaxy had another sub-par season in 2008.
Beckham did manage to turn things around personally in 2009 and even earned a loan to AC Milan where he once again established himself as a star in Europe. His performance in Italy did not go unnoticed as he was also selected to the England World Cup team. Unfortunately, during the lead up to the tournament he suffered a torn achilles which forced him to watch from the sidelines in South Africa.
Beckham is scheduled to make a return to the LA Galaxy for the rest of the MLS season and still has two more years left in his contract with the team but his tenure has always been in doubt. He has publicly stated that he wanted to play in Europe again and his loan at AC Milan has given him that ‘fix’ for now, but the question is whether he can finish his contract in LA or part ways sooner. In my opinion he has accomplished what he could in North America and for him, ideally, the place to end his career would be and should be for a team in Europe.
With the injury to Beckham a new poster boy for the MLS has arrived to take his place – former Arsenal, Barcelona and French international star Thierry Henry. Henry has joined the New York Red Bulls and will be expected to contribute immediately which shouldn’t be much of a problem since he still has his scoring touch (scored twice against Tottenham in a friendly), great pace and the vision to make a difference for the Red Bulls. Despite being older at 37, Henry will also end up making more of a difference than Beckham has in the overall perception of the sport in regards to converting the fringe fans of the MLS and soccer in America.
Henry will have a far greater impact than Beckham on growing the game in the States because he scores goals. Beckham is a great player with excellent touch on the ball, no one can deny this, but the Americans love the glory players. Whether you hit home runs, score touchdowns or score goals that is what is valued in American sports.
So when Beckham didn’t or couldn’t put the ball in the back of the net right away and only gathered assists he was raked through the coals. Henry won’t have this problem, he is a goal scorer by nature having won the Premier League Golden Boot for top goal scorer while with Arsenal for straight seasons from 2001–02- 2005–06, and there isn’t the same expectation on him to be the face of the league that Beckham once had.
While in Toronto, Thierry Henry took a moment to pose with two young Toronto FC fans
Henry will certainly light up some teams and be a constant threat to any defence in the league which has already been demonstrated in his only two MLS regular season games thus far. He assisted on both goals in his first game and was consistently making great runs behind the Toronto FC defence in his second appearance despite only playing the opening 45 minutes. This past Saturday, in another game against TFC, this time at BMO Field in Toronto, Henry played almost 70 minutes and had a couple of great chances, he wasn’t able to find the back of the net but it was clear the energy was there. Every time Henry touched the ball, the crowd buzzed in anticipation that something magical was about to happen. When he left the game, it was to a rousing applause and Henry saluted the crowd back in appreciation.
With soccer at the height of popularity this summer in the States, Henry has the chance to do what Beckham could not do – turn the casual fan into followers of the league. If the Frenchman is able to bring in the fans, make the highlight reels and equal the commercial appeal that Beckham has, Henry will easily be considered a better player and a true superstar in the eyes of the everyday American soccer fan.