x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Beckham's MLS task at LA Galaxy is a thankless one

Beckham's task is a thankless one as spectators in the US seem genetically engineered to resist the allure of a pinpoint cross or a defence-splitting pass.

Beckham's celebrity allure may be off the chart, but his time in the MLS have yielded little in the way of results on or off the pitch. Brendon Thorne / Getty Images
Beckham's celebrity allure may be off the chart, but his time in the MLS have yielded little in the way of results on or off the pitch. Brendon Thorne / Getty Images

Has it actually been four years? Was it really that long ago when David Beckham decided to flee his loving-hating fans and the paparazzi and the tabloid headlines — I mean, decided to carry the torch for his stuck-in-neutral sport in America — and signed with the Los Angeles Galaxy of Major League Soccer (MLS)?

Time flies when you are ... well, it is unclear if anyone has been having fun.

In 2007, Beckham became another prominent import widely counted on to elevate US professional soccer from cult status to mass acceptance, and keep it there. The (pipe) dream was that Beckham's footwork, multiplied by his off-the-scale celebrity allure, would attract soccer enthusiasts as well as the casually curious to check out the dashing, tattooed Mr Posh Spice.

Measured in cold numbers, Beckham's impact has been a blip as the expiration date on his deal looms. He began his fifth — and surely last — MLS season this month.

Attendance at MLS matches last year averaged 16,675, about a hundred fewer than in his first season.

Television ratings have budged little; in fact, the main network (ESPN2) attracted 12 per cent fewer viewers than in the previous season and has been outdrawn by bowling and poker. (One factor: American soccer fans can now watch high-level overseas games, such as the English Premier League, live.)

His compensation, which comes to US$6 million (Dh22m) per annum, was not the rising tide that lifts all boats. The average MLS salary a year ago of $138,169 was 6.6 per cent below 2009. Nearly one in four players were paid the minimum $40,000.

Two more Beckham statistics, presented without comment: nine goals scored and no MLS titles in four seasons.

OK, maybe Beckham, 35, has helped the league stay afloat as the back half of its schedule and play-offs go head-to-head with the almighty National Football League (American football) - and continually comes away with a grade-three concussion.

Either way, no single player in history not named Pele should be expected to jump-start soccer in a country overloaded with spectator sports, most of which involve actual scoring. (The incomparable Pele's glorious run with the New York Cosmos in the 1970s fuelled the golden years of the game in a nation that sometimes seems genetically engineered to resist it, except as amateur participants.)

Least of all, no player like Beckham, an oft-injured, non-scoring midfielder, who is at times unsure which side of the Atlantic he prefers to play on and well into the twilight years of his career.

Francisco Marcos, an astute observer of soccer in the States for four decades, suggests Beckham was miscast by anyone who anticipated a transformational bang from someone with his skill set.

Beckham is about laser-like crosses and free kicks, not so much speed-of-light runs or back-of-the-net goals. Once fans not steeped in the ways of the game experience Beckham's subtle brilliance, they expect it every game, the same as they would a pinpoint touchdown pass by Peyton Manning or a splay-legged dunk by LeBron James.

"In soccer, 'every game' is hard to come by," said Marcos, the founder and president emeritus of the second-tier United Soccer Leagues in America.

So, if Beckham fails to deliver one day, along the lines of a baseball slugger who goes 0-for-4 with three ground-outs and a strikeout, the tendency is to change the channel.

Marcos is not here to disparage Beckham. "He is a great professional, and probably no one could deliver the buzz he did," said Marcos.

Beckham's contributions, he maintains, may not be appreciated for awhile.

Already he paved the way for Thierry Henry, now in his second MLS season. Others - notably Cristiano Ronaldo, 26, from Marcos's homeland of Portugal - have dropped hints of wanting to head west before middle-age creep. (Hey, Ronaldo, this land is your land. After all, you were named after Ronald Reagan.)

"Beckham did open the market up to others, a la Pele, and so now the Henrys and others will follow," Marcos said.

For MLS or any soccer league to become a must-see sport, he asserts, the future Beckhams and Henrys must enlist before their fitness starts to erode.

Then those oddly accented transplants must be supplemented by home-grown talent. "Very good - not marquee, necessarily," said Marcos, who always sees a brighter day for soccer stateside.

After this season, Beckham bids his adieu, presumably to circle back to England, where the paparazzi and tabloids might leave the old boy (married 12 years now, with three kids and one more on the way) alone.

His legacy here will probably be a movie - Bend It Like Beckham - with which he had no connection.

Yet, if MLS ultimately raises its profile with a series of splendid international players still in their prime, he will have lent a hand.

Yes, time flies. But, with Beckham and his underwhelming stay, a fun time was not had by all.