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Pelé, part two

Thirty-two years later, Beckham's debut looks familiar

Posted: Sunday July 22, 2007 1:30AM; Updated: Monday July 23, 2007 1:41PM
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CARSON, Calif. -- Sixteen minutes, 12 touches -- and 19 cameras beaming every gimpy stride to a worldwide audience.

In the grand scheme of things, David Beckham's American debut was about as similar to Pelé's 32 years ago as their countries of birth.

Still, if you remember Pelé's fantastic voyage with the New York Cosmos -- or saw the documentary Once In a Lifetime (at my age, I fall into the latter category) -- it's hard not to draw comparisons. When "The King" stepped onto the field of dilapidated Downing Stadium against the Dallas Tornado on June 15, 1975, he was shocked to find 21,000 fans chanting his name.

The similarities are striking. A game struggling for recognition in a country with other sporting priorities. A fledgling league looking for legitimacy. A massive bet on the biggest star of his respective day.

Sure, Major League Soccer is in much better financial shape than the NASL ever enjoyed. But the 27,000 screaming fans here at Home Depot Center on Saturday -- especially the celebrity cadre that included Will Smith, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Katie Holmes and Eva Longoria -- definitely were a reminder of the glory days of the Cosmos.

But this isn't just me talking. I made a call to TV pundit and former Cosmos goalkeeper Shep Messing and asked him if Beckhamania feels a bit familiar.

"It really does," he shot back. "The paparazzi, the press conferences; everyplace we went with Pelé -- tours in China, Asia, Rome -- it was 500 journalists. It's very much déjà vu for those of us who played with him."

Like Beckham, Pelé was lured to the U.S. with unprecedented riches: a three-year, $4.7 million deal that was more than any American athlete at the time. And like Beckham, Pelé stole the headlines away from more traditional sports and left a dazzling, rock-star extravaganza after-party in his wake.

"When Pelé came 30 years ago, it was like a meteorite," Messing recalled. "We were playing in front of 3,000 fans. All of a sudden, Pelé was here and was going on Johnny Carson and visiting the White House. In a short period of time, 3,000 fans turned into 77,000 fans. The Cosmos became Mick Jagger, Studio 54 and Henry Kissinger."

That's not to say guys like Quavas Kirk and Kyle Martino are destined to become A-listers. But the feel here Saturday definitely showed promise. Still, Messing pointed out Pelé's challenge was to make a nation that didn't know a thing about soccer curious about the world's No. 1 sport.

"Pelé made soccer cool," Messing said. "Beckham has a different challenge: to take the league to the next level and broaden the exposure to sponsors -- all the things MLS needs. He can't do it alone, but he's already creating attention outside the soccer community."

MLS may never reach the upper echelon of American sports in terms of popularity, but no other soccer league in this country has ever been as healthy or enjoyed such potential for growth.

Two teams (Beckham's Los Angeles Galaxy and FC Dallas) have already turned a profit. That's something that never happened in the NASL, which lived and died by the gluttony of the Cosmos and poorly calculated over-expansion that eventually doomed it to collapse seven years after Pelé's retirement.

MLS has solid TV contracts with ESPN and Fox Sports and a huge sponsorship deal with Adidas -- again, something the NASL never enjoyed. And believe it or not, MLS is the 12th-most popular soccer league in the world in terms of attendance.

Now MLS has Beckham, the only pitchman with enough worldwide star power to attract Joe Sixpack (or at least his kids) to the league. If it can somehow figure out how to bottle the enthusiasm here on Saturday night, it has a good shot. If that happens, maybe in 30 years, you'll remember where you were when Becks put MLS on the road to greatness.