Soccer’s saviour-Edmonton Sun

That may be a stretch, but Beckham’s arrival in North America has given the game a big boost

By DEREK VAN DIEST, Sun Media 

It may be known as the City of Angels. But David Beckham was not brought to Los Angeles to be a saviour.
Major League Soccer was not in need of saving. They were growing steadily before Beckham was brought in.

“I knew the situation coming in,” Beckham said. “I know that soccer is not the No. 1 sport in America and I’m not going to sit here and say that it will become the No. 1 sport. Traditionally, there are so many amazing other sports in this country and that’s never going to change. But to grow the sport in this country, I believe that will happen.”

Soccer as a participation sport has had a strong foothold in North America for years.

Lagged behind others

Professionally, however, as a spectator sport, it’s always lagged behind other traditional sports on the continent. Beckham, arguably the most recognizable face on the planet, was brought in to increase the profile of the game in North America. He did that simply by stepping off the plane.

“It’s America and you can achieve anything in this country if you work hard and believe in yourself,” Beckham said. “That’s the positive side of this. I don’t see any reason why soccer can’t be up there with basketball, baseball and American football, because there is a passion to the sport and if you really get into it, people will realize how amazing it is.”

So far, the Galaxy have seen dividends on and off the field with a healthy Beckham in the lineup. Tonight, they’ll be in Edmonton taking on the Vancouver Whitecaps in an exhibition contest at Commonwealth Stadium.

The two teams met last October in Vancouver, a game that finished in a scoreless tie. “I think there’ll be a lot more energy in that game,” Beckham said recently.

“Going into the (Vancouver) game last season I was only about 50% fit. Physically, I’m in a lot better shape now and I’ll be able to move around the pitch a bit more and play the passes that I know I’m able to play, unlike the last game where I wasn’t fully fit.

“Hopefully we can put on a better show and it’ll be competitive. Whether we’re playing in a friendly game or a competitive game, we want to win. I think the game will be a lot better than it was the first time around.”

Playing exhibition games has become standard for the Galaxy since Beckham’s arrival. It’s all part of improving the team’s and the league’s profile.

“When you compare it to other sports here in the United States, in basketball, baseball, football and hockey, the best players in the world play here,” said Galaxy head coach Ruud Gullit. “So if you want to have one of the best leagues, you have to attract some of the best players. “What players can earn now in the MLS, is not to the standard as it is in Europe. So it’s difficult to get players like David.”

Trying to avoid pitfalls

Despite its increasing profile, MLS soccer doesn’t want to go down the same road its predecessor, the North American Soccer League, did. There was a time when the NASL was as big as other sports on the continent, due to the arrival of Pele.

For a brief period, if you can believe it, the New York Cosmos were outdrawing the New York Giants. But eventually salaries got out of control and the gap between the rich and poor teams proved to be too wide to sustain the league.

In the MLS, all the teams have to abide to a salary cap with the exception of two players per club. That includes Beckham and his reported five-year, $250-million deal. “If you want to improve the league, there has to be upgrades,” Gullit said.

“But I understand on the other hand that the league wants to protect their players. They don’t want to have happen what happened in the ’70s when teams were able to buy any player they wanted.” After spending his entire career in Europe, Gullit is getting accustomed to the way things are run in the U.S. He’s aware it’s a different challenge than anything he was faced with in Europe. The same goes for Beckham.

“People knew why I left Europe to come here; they know there are a lot of people in North America playing soccer,” Gullit said. “I don’t think they know why they call American football, football and why they don’t call it American rugby. They don’t play it with their feet, they play with their hands. “But everybody knows that there is huge potential here. By bringing in players like David, we can try and develop that.”