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Note to MLS: Get Beckham

Time is now for league to grab soccer's biggest icon

Posted: Friday October 13, 2006 11:57AM; Updated: Friday October 13, 2006 11:57AM
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David Beckham is in contract negotiations with Real Madrid, where coach Fabio Capello has relegated him to a role off the bench.
David Beckham is in contract negotiations with Real Madrid, where coach Fabio Capello has relegated him to a role off the bench.
Ryan Pierse/Getty Images
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It's almost inevitable that David Beckham will play in Major League Soccer someday. That's not news to anyone who follows American soccer. Beckham has always told me he's interested, MLS is certainly keen on the idea and the financials are a lot less complicated than you'd probably think.

But what has changed of late, perhaps, is the timetable. I'll come right out and say it: Instead of waiting two more years, MLS should make a bold statement and sign Becks as soon as possible.

That would mean locking up Beckham as early as January and having him on an MLS field for the Los Angeles Galaxy or New York Red Bulls at some point in 2007.

Why move now? Because the landscape has changed for the world's most recognizable soccer star. For a number of reasons, Beckham's negotiations for a new contract with Real Madrid have dragged on far longer than anyone had expected, and he can begin speaking with other suitors on Jan. 1 -- less than three months from now.

What's more, while Beckham, 31, remains remarkably popular -- only Ronaldinho earns more among soccer players -- the conditions are right for him to start the next phase of his career in a role much like the one Pelé played in the old NASL.

In 2006 alone, two events have happened faster than soccer observers had anticipated: 1) Beckham, who was England's captain at the World Cup, has already been dropped from his national team, and 2) Real Madrid coach Fabio Capello has yanked Beckham from the starting lineup.

That hardly means Beckham is done as a player. In fact, I'd argue that he could make a significant impact on the field in MLS and prove that he's not just some old-timer wanting a fat paycheck and a vacation. A change of scenery and adoring U.S. crowds would recharge his batteries, and who knows? It might even help him get back into the England squad.

Nor should economics keep Beckham from joining MLS. Although the single-entity league has a salary cap of $1.9 million per team, the owners have already approved exceptions. What's more, I'm told by some MLS insiders that the so-called Beckham Rule -- which would allow each team to sign one player for any salary, without being subject to league approval -- may yet go into effect this off-season.

As for Beckham's sponsors, Adidas, Pepsi and Gillette already have ties to MLS and might even encourage Becks to exploit the growth potential of the U.S. soccer market.

The billionaire owners of L.A. and New York -- Phil Anschutz and Dietrich Mateschitz -- could easily afford Beckham, while at the same time reassuring MLS' less wealthy owners that this wouldn't start a spending arms race of the sort that killed the NASL. (If you maintain single entity and have controls like the Beckham Rule in place, that shouldn't be a problem.)

For its part, MLS has plenty of reasons to act on Beckham sooner rather than later. For starters, the league's new eight-year TV contract with ESPN begins next season, and MLS needs a few big names to push the needle up on ratings. (You can be sure ESPN is demanding increased star power to justify its investment.)

Two, Beckham's potential MLS employers -- the Galaxy and the Red Bulls -- desperately need makeovers. The story of the season in MLS has been the freefall of the defending champion Galaxy, who missed the playoffs for the first time in the league's 11-year history. Beckham already has a business relationship with the Anschutz Entertainment Group, which owns the Galaxy, and an outpost of Beckham's namesake soccer academy is already in place at the Home Depot Center.

As for the Red Bulls, the team managed by former U.S. boss Bruce Arena figures to make major changes in the offseason. Even if New York squeaks into the easy-to-reach MLS playoffs this week -- the Red Bulls will have to beat Kansas City on Saturday to do so -- just about everyone agrees that the sophisticated New York soccer market demands more players of Beckham's stature.

In recent years, as MLS has built soccer stadiums, signed new TV deals and attracted new investors, it has become clear that the product on the field needs to improve. There are a number of ways to pursue that goal -- better youth development, smarter purchases of Central and South American players, increased cash bonuses for winning teams -- but there's no substitute for star power and buzz.

That's where Beckham comes in. The timing is right. Make it happen now, MLS.