By Trevor Freeman
Many have scoffed at the viability of Major League Soccer since its inception in 1994. There has always been a dismissive “this won’t rate any higher on the sports spectrum than Arena Football” tone towards it. Names like “Real” Salt Lake, “F.C.” Dallas and D.C. “United” were both comedic and a little bit sad. However like George Foreman in his fight against Michael Moorer, this league just stuck around. And then last night, it delivered its biggest punch as David Beckham grabbed the front page in a way that had to be joyful for America’s soccer fans. The box score will say that he delivered two assists in a loss to the New York-New Jersey Red Bulls and that will not reflect the performance he had last night. David Beckham delivered with the bright lights on. And by doing so, he has given this league a chance at being relevant.
The uphill battle that MLS has always had is a perception that it could not compete against football, basketball and baseball. I scoff at this line of thought and I would offer they really are only competing against one of those sports and it is the one that is dying right now in the eyes of the public. The MLS season starts in April and ends in October. In other words they miss the bulk of the NFL season, the Super Bowl, New Year’s Day Bowl games and March Madness. Their slate competes directly against Major League Baseball.
Let’s think about that for a second. Raise your hands if you religiously follow baseball AFTER your favorite team has been eliminated from the pennant race. I can honestly say that I have watched more minutes of “House Hunters” on HGTV than I have minutes of Oakland A’s baseball after I realized that Keith Richards has a better chance of getting an Oscar nomination for his turn in “Pirates of The Caribbean” than the A’s do of making the playoffs. Of the three major American sports, baseball has always been the toughest one to watch. That is something that will never change. When you look at the stars, Major League Baseball is lacking in that department as well. Baseball’s two brightest lights are Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez. As we all know, Bonds is a self-absorbed cheater who tarnished one of sports most cherished records and A-Rod is a self-absorbed prick who likes to cheat on his wife with manly-looking strippers. On the flip side, David Beckham seems like a cordial guy who genuinely cares about his sport. Beckham signs autographs, holds youth clinics in Harlem, and fields every question a reporter asks. He also has been married to the same wife for the last ten years and that wife only adds to his image. Victoria Beckham is hot in that “you can look but you can’t touch” mold. Maybe “Becks” is in the Shaquille O’Neal/Miami Heat stage of his soccer career; however what he has brought to America has been fun for the whole family.
The one advantage baseball has always had on every other American sport is its history. However that history has been taking a beating that is reminiscent of the one Ivan Drago put on Apollo Creed in Rocky IV. 61 is gone. Henry Aaron’s name has been erased from the record books. Watching a home run was once something beautiful…….now it just reminds of the awkward place that an incompetent commissioner let the game slide towards. To top it off, the old yards have left us and are being replaced by these modern, cookie-cutter stadiums because that is the way Bud Selig wants it. I’m no New York Yankee fan, but I find it disgusting that the Yankees will never play another game at Yankee Stadium after next season. Yankee Stadium was a place that meant something. Baseball had this history and its stewards have sat idly by and let it get flushed down the toilet. Its biggest event, the World Series, airs at awkward times and hasn’t had a meaningful game played in it since Josh Beckett tossed a five hitter in 2003. An event it still is, but it is not the same event that the Super Bowl or NCAA Tournament are.
I’ll admit. I caught the soccer bug two years ago when my sister moved to London. I settled on the Blackburn Rovers as my team and I have been off to the races ever since. Being a soccer fan has been a fun time. Especially because of this bar named Nevada Smith’s in New York which actually is open and serving beer before 10:00 on weekends. I would make the argument that the success of the English Premier League, La Liga, and Serie A will help the growth of MLS. Guys like Brad Friedel, Brian McBride and Tim Howard succeeding overseas lends credibility to the players over here. It shows that guys like Landon Donovan and Jozy Altidore could not only walk into Fratton or Ewood Park and compete, but they could do so credibly.
What makes MLS more dangerous than ever before is that the league has built itself towards this moment. They have judiciously expanded the number of teams in the league and have been building soccer-only stadiums like the one David Beckham’s Los Angeles Galaxy plays in. They have instituted salary caps and have smartly focused on adding young talent to the league. The MLS hasn’t bumrushed television with a reckless abandon. They have confined themselves to their cable spots and have focused on just making the product better. Over its thirteen year lifespan it has slowly built itself to the point that they could allow their teams to now go over the salary cap and sign players like David Beckham, Colombian Juan Pablo Angel from Aston Villa or Mexican National Team star Cuauhtémoc Blanco. To top it off, the powers that be knew that if the sport was to be truly viable in America it had to choose its competition wisely. I’m sure they didn’t expect baseball to suffer the steroid crisis it is now mired in, however there was a reason the powers that be in MLS set up their season to run from April to October.
Maybe Americans will never fully appreciate the “beautiful game” however we are closer now than ever before. Major League Soccer took a huge step last night when David Beckham’s right foot delivered. Just know that this step has been years in the making and that this could be the start of a true summertime competition.
If you have any questions or comments, feel free to e-mail me at [email protected]