Mark it down: Jan. 11, 2007 will forever be known as the day that Major League Soccer truly arrived on the world stage.
David Beckham, the world's most recognizable soccer star, is leaving Real Madrid to join MLS' Los Angeles Galaxy in August on a five-year contract. And he's doing it the age of 31, it should be noted, not at, say, 35, when the world would simply scoff at a washed-up European star coming Stateside for a vacation and an easy paycheck.
Beckham's signing isn't necessarily a surprise. I wrote back in October that a team in MLS -- most likely the Galaxy -- needed to make it happen sooner rather than later. Here's what Beckham's arrival means:
MLS just got noticed in the domestic and international realm. Beckham's signing isn't exactly the same thing as the Cosmos's signing of Pelé in the 1970s, but it's awfully close to it. Pelé was the greatest player the game had ever seen, while Becks has never been considered the planet's best player. But Beckham is a much better player than some of his critics are willing to admit -- while he has lost a bit of pace, he was still effective at last year's World Cup and remains one of the world's best free kick-takers. And let's be honest: the marketing opportunities here are enormous. Expect to see Galaxy jerseys with Beckham's name in every corner of the world.
From a domestic perspective, landing Beckham gives MLS a credibility that it has never had with the American sports fan, who demands to see the world's biggest stars in the sports it cares about. Beckham is a great match for L.A., where Galaxy games will become A-list events with the celebrity sightings you usually associate with Lakers games.
Beckham may not be the only star coming to MLS. Now that Beckham has decided to make the move, his stamp of approval for the league will make it much easier for other international stars to come on board. MLS's newly installed designated-player rule -- the so-called Beckham rule -- allows each team to pay an unlimited salary to one player. DP slots are tradeable, and the New York Red Bulls now have two of them. In other words, look for Bruce Arena's Red Bulls (and perhaps a few others) to create some major buzz of their own with a big-name signing or two: Ronaldo, the all-time leading goal scorer in World Cup history and Beckham's current teammate at Real Madrid, has long been rumored as a target.
Will Beckham's signing make the soccer that much better around the league? Not on its own. He's only one player, after all, and MLS needs to continue making strides when it comes to youth development. But from a soccer perspective Beckham will be a useful player in the midfield of the Galaxy, which frankly needs the help after missing the playoffs for the first time in league history last season. The image of Beckham sending crosses onto the head of Landon Donovan for goals is the sort of thing that will be replayed on televisions around the world.
Are there any possible downsides to bringing Beckham on board? Sure. Overspending on international stars is what eventually doomed the old NASL, and there's no going back for MLS after this move. At the same time, though, there appear to be more rules in place -- not least the league's single-entity structure -- which should prevent wild bidding wars between teams. As for other risks, is it possible that Becks could be a bust on the field here? I guess, but it's not likely. The league has a long ways to go, but it's still good enough that he won't be able to coast here. Besides, I also think that Beckham's pride will keep him from loafing. If I know him well enough, I think he'll try to show people in Madrid and in England that he's still worth something on the field.
Whatever happens, today is a red-letter day for soccer in America, for MLS and specifically for the Los Angeles Galaxy.