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David Beckham: What did he do, really, for American soccer? (+video)

David Beckham has announced his retirement. In the US, the David Beckham experiment coincided with a flourishing of soccer, and he was the perfect face for the sport's new swagger.

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer, Staff writer / May 16, 2013

The Los Angeles Galaxy's David Beckham is sprayed with champagne as he holds the championship trophy after defeating the Houston Dynamo 3-1 in the MLS Cup title game in Carson, Calif., on Dec. 1, 2012. Beckham says he is retiring from soccer at the end of the season.

Jae C. Hong/AP/File

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Los Angeles and Boston

When soccer star David Beckham played his last game with the Los Angeles Galaxy here last December, winning the Major League Soccer championship, many hoped he would come back as a coach, owner, or in some other front-office role.

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That comeback could now be closer to reality with his announcement Thursday that he is retiring from soccer. Currently at Paris St. Germain – which has already clinched the 2013 French league title – Beckham will play his final game May 26.

Beckham, 38, has not said what he will do next. But the contract that brought him to Los Angeles in 2007 contained a clause allowing him to become an MLS owner at a below-market rate – a clause he has reportedly long promised to exercise.

If he does, either now or in the future, it would be to take part in a product that he helped build.

Beckham's impact on soccer in America can be debated endlessly.

On one hand, he did almost nothing to increase television viewership of MLS, and league attendance – which now exceeds that of the National Basketball Association and National Hockey League, by some measures – was already on an upward swing.

Yet what other athlete could have brought Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes to Galaxy games, as he did? And would other European soccer stars not yet ready to be put out to pasture – from Thierry Henry to Robbie Keane – have come to MLS if Beckham hadn't first?

In short: What other soccer player in the world could have made MLS cool and given it instant credibility, both here and abroad?

In the end, Beckham's five years in the US coincided with a flourishing of the sport. The league expanded into new and wildly successful markets from Toronto to Seattle. It went from paying for its games to be on TV to signing a national TV deal with NBC Sports. And it found a viable business model with the construction of soccer-only stadiums across the US and Canada.

Some of this had to do with Beckham. Much of it didn't. But he was the undeniable face of the league as it was taking its first steps from being a novelty to becoming an up-and-coming player on the American professional sports scene. If Brazilian superstar Pelé effectively introduced the sport of soccer to America during his stint with the New York Cosmos in the 1970s, then Beckham embodied the sport's newfound swagger, and in that way, he was worth every penny of his purported $250 million salary.

“Beckham brought glamor and credibility to MLS, which needed them. If some of the gossipy coverage was laughable, it was tolerable because he seemed in on the joke, incredulous that a kid who grew up in modest circumstances in London had become an international soccer and style icon,” wrote Los Angeles Times columnist Helene Elliott upon Beckham's departure from L.A.

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