What Beckham's 'bend' means for US soccer

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

For the foreseeable future, it is hardly debatable which will be the more important addition to Major League Soccer: David Beckham's dreamy hair or his somewhat-less-photogenic right foot.

Does it really matter that Beckham is no longer one of the world's elite players? There was never a winsome film named, "Bend it like Zlatan Ibrahimovic." If the Los Angeles Galaxy had instead signed the cryptically named Swedish super-striker, there probably would have been only two people at the press conference, both wearing his replica Inter Milan jersey.

No, this is David Beckham - he of the Spice Girl wife and the paparazzi-perfect smile. For the first time, America's distinctly B-level soccer league is A-list material.

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But it does not follow that this will be his legacy to American soccer.

Clearly, when Beckham arrives this summer, he is intended to be a Pele for the new generation - a cultural touchstone for a country where most people know only enough about the sport to make it a punch line. And it is only appropriate that in this media-obsessed age, when sports stars blur the lines between Access Hollywood and X's and O's, that this generation's great soccer icon should have nice pecs and his own line of soccer shoes, too.

For the time being, this is what is necessary. Most of America's older generations have long since decided that soccer is more worthy of a sneer than a second look - a sport for girls and for foreign men with floppy hair who seem to have trouble staying upright whenever touched.

But this is the gift of Beckham: His popularity is not based on his sporting achievements, so the buzz he creates will transcend his sport. Even those not at all inclined to soccer can't ignore it.

Just think: When was the last time that a player in Major League Soccer could have been considered a coveted guest on the Oprah Winfrey show?

The answer is never.

For all his silky skills and chest-pounding bravado, former New England Revolution star Clint Dempsey was not on the guest list for Tom and Katie's wedding.

Somewhere in MLS league headquarters, there must be visions of Tom and Katie sitting field-side at Galaxy games, of Brad and Angelina's baby in Galaxy green and gold. Suddenly, courtside seats at Los Angeles Laker basketball games would seem like consolation prizes.

But among the reasons given for Beckham's surprising decision to leave the world's most popular and historically successful club for one that didn't even make the eight-team MLS playoffs last year, one is consistently overlooked.

In the summer of 2005, Beckham stood on the very field he will now call home and announced the creation of The David Beckham Academy in greater Los Angeles. If Beckham is to leave any lingering trace on the history of American soccer, it will almost certainly be here - not in his soccer academy, per se, but among America's youth.

America is a far different soccer landscape than it was in 1975 when Pele arrived to helm the New York Cosmos. On the field, American soccer has never been better: In1975, America hadn't qualified for a World Cup in a quarter century; it has now been to each of the last five. In the public, its appeal is limited, but certainly much broader than ever before: MLS is now entering its 11th year.

The American soccer players who qualified for the 1990 World Cup - the first time America had made itto the World Cup since 1950 - talk about how they grew up watching Pele and the New York Cosmos dynasty. The greatest hope must be that Beckham can do the same thing, building off American soccer's improved foundation to move the sport from its place on the fringes of American sports culture.

The contract itself is a statement for MLS: We can afford to pay a player $50 million a year. Who's minor-league now?

But who knows if any of this will work? Though admittedly not on this scale, the arrival in 2001 of Luis Hernandez, the hottest property in Mexican soccer, was supposed to bring the Mexican masses to MLS. It did. For about two games.

Instead, Beckham must resolve to toil in half empty stadiums on cold autumn evenings in Columbus, Ohio,to build a mystique. He must become more than a curiosity. He must become a legend to 8-year-olds sitting in their living rooms, watching his free kicks, transfixed, noses 10 inches from the television. He must become a Michael Jordan of MLS, sweeping his way to title after title.

Without question, his career is on its downward slope. Inthe space of a few months, he has lost his place on the English national team and his starting role at Real Madrid.

For a player of his stature, his skill set is surprisingly limited. He is no Ronaldinho, with blistering speed and a magician's array of ball-handling tricks. But his right foot could be bronzed and put in a museum. With it, he can put a soccer ball anywhere he wants - which is no small thing.

As with all foreign stars who come to America, the question is one of desire. MLS is a young man's league, dictated by pace and energy. If he has come for guest appearances on "24" and tea with Tom and Katie, he will soon be steamrolled by young Yanks eager to leave a "Joey was here" souvenir on his shins.

But if his soccer academy is his inspiration, and he is truly coming to accept the challenge of bringing soccer to America - with his right foot as well as with his hair - then perhaps MLS's millions will not have been wasted.

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