By Brian Westfall, Soccer Editor - Archive - Email
Beckham's return an important lifeline for MLS

David Beckham took the MLS to a new level.
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Just under 4 1/2 years ago, David Beckham played under the "biggest raindrops I've ever seen," starting an experiment in front a sellout crowd of 46,686 in Washington, D.C., that could not fail, for the sake of MLS.

In the midst of its 12th season, at RFK Stadium, the home of record four-time champion D.C. United, just the sight of Beckham - the chance he might step on the field - was enough to lure a sellout crowd.

From the beginning of the match, even with Beckham on the bench, it was clear the former England star, who previously played at two of the biggest clubs in the world in Manchester United and Real Madrid, was bigger than MLS.

Once he stepped on the field, for his 20-minute debut, the stadium erupted as the Beckham era officially began. Enough flashbulbs went off to light up even Las Vegas and, afterward, it did not matter that L.A. lost the game, 1-0.

It did not matter that Beckham had, really, no impact on the play.

What mattered was the overall impact, and what was to follow.

The Los Angeles Galaxy, who lured Beckham from record European champion Real, lavished in the attention of its new star, who transcended the sport with his model looks and pop star wife, Victoria.

While it would be unfair to say Beckham, David that is, saved MLS, it is also easy to say he took the league to a new level. MLS has expanded from 12 to 19 teams since 2006, and nine soccer-specific stadiums have since been built.

Beckham was not always on the field during his first five seasons in MLS, but just his presence was enough. When he was on the field, his abilities were on par - or better - than anyone else in the league.

In 74 regular-season games, he had 31 assists and 11 goals. In playoff games, he added seven more assists.

When his initial contract expired after last season, MLS faced the reality it could have to continue its remarkable growth without the face of the league.

Paris Saint-Germain, under wealthy Qatari owners, wanted to bring the Beckham circus to France, where just the name would take the up-and-coming club on an even quicker ascent to international recognition.

Beckham's brand is just that big.

Wednesday night, Los Angeles gave MLS a two-year lifeline. Beckham re-signed, this time on a two-year deal worth a reported $15 million, which will likely take him to the foot of a great career often overshadowed by his brand.

Perhaps, it will lead to him owning an MLS franchise and continue to grow an exciting young league in the future. With attendance at an average of 17,872, it is clear the league has reached new heights.

But the thought of MLS without Beckham, at least right now, is still a little scary. Although Landon Donovan and Thierry Henry would still be on board (for now) and a number of lesser-known stars would produce a good product, that is not enough.

Beckham proved that.

For the man who has made a living dishing out assists, give Victoria one this week, as David said Thursday, "Victoria and the kids have the final answer on where we live.

"When you're married with children, your priorities totally change."

MLS has to make it a priority over Beckham's final two seasons to develop its new face - preferably a few of them - or the former England captain's exit is destined to leave the league in the fight of its life.

Remember those "raindrops"? Well they still fall on RFK Stadium on occasion, where D.C. United - the face of the league during its infancy - still plays.

There, like it or not, is still a lot of work to do to build MLS. That is not to say the league will crumble without Beckham, but can it sustain growth? Can it go even farther, continue to expand, and one day challenge the major sports?

Beckham knows his work is not done, especially off the field. While MLS seems solidly anchored at this time, the future remains cloudy.

"I've seen first hand how popular soccer is now in the States," Beckham said, "and I'm as committed as ever to growing the game here."

The next two years will be the most important yet.
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