There is quite a hullabaloo this week about David Beckham finally arriving in Los Angeles to begin his massively hyped career with the Galaxy of Major League Soccer. This has led to the discussion of many ideas, among them whether Beckham can save MLS and if MLS is even worth saving. Lets go after these one at a time, shall we?
Can David Beckham save Major League Soccer?
There is certainly a chance, if for no other reason than "stranger things have happened." Though there really is no such thing as a "savior" (as Roger Clemens is so perfectly illustrating this year with the Yankees).
David Beckham (or DB, as I'll call him, so I don't have to keep typing his name) is not unlike his wife, the former Posh Spice. By that I mean, of course, that they both may still be easy on the eyes, and a major crowd favorite because of it, but the "relevant" stage of their careers is long since gone. DB is more of a big name than he is a big talent. When he was in his early to mid twenties, DB was quite the player, chock full of talent and devoid of team player-ness. Though as we all know, here in America, nobody gives a crap about petty details like that.
But now, DB is 32. He isn't incredibly fast. Or agile. Which are usually skills that highly touted soccer players have. About the only thing DB still has is his right foot, which isn't much, but is still more than many other players. Any time LA has a free kick, Davey will be all over it.
Fortunately for DB (and the Galaxy), his actual appeal seems to have nothing to do with his physical prowess on the soccer pitch. I don't need to go into specific details, but when a middle-aged reporter's wife turns into a giggling middle-schooler when her husband tells her about his interview with Beckham, one can only imagine how the rest of the female population is responding. Probably the same way the male population would be responding to Victoria Beckham arriving – if she weren't shaped like a twig these days.
That said, I don't expect Beckham's play to be any sort of sudden cure for a middling Galaxy team (3-5-4 currently, and not playing particularly consistent ball). Nor do I think that Galaxy GM Alexei Lalas is anything short of loony when he says that Beckham could be "bigger than Pele" for soccer in the U.S.
Beckham coming to play MLS is just a very small step that doesn't begin cover the dozens of other internationally known players who won't come play here, or (even worse) the dozens of U.S. players who would rather play in Europe. Beckham would need to be much bigger than Pele to dent those problems. And even then, truly international competitions like the World Cup and Olympics will still be more diverse, competitive, and exciting.
Of course, all of that is a secondary concern to the bigger question: Is Major League Soccer even worth saving?
Obviously, MLS, just like any other sports league, is a business. Due to that fact, the logical conclusion would be "if MLS is making money and producing a profit, then it is successful." However, the more I looked into things, the more reasons I found to doubt the league's financial success, to ignore the league. Here is a "what I found in 15 minutes" list of what's wrong:
The league plays its games from April to October. Seven months. So that's two months of being overshadowed by baseball, hockey, and basketball, followed by three months of competing with baseball, then two months of competing with the NFL and baseball. That doesn't seem particularly ideal for succeeding at taking fans away from more popular ways to spend their money.
If that weren't bad enough, the MLS only plays games on Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday (plus one Wednesday per month). Perhaps because of such scheduling genius, you have Beckham's LA Galaxy, who haven't played in a week and wont play again for three more weeks.
The league's highest scoring team, the Kansas City Wizards, have scored four goals in their last five games. The second highest scoring (and overall best) team, Houston, has had 9 of their 17 games end in either 1-0 or 0-0 games.
All that sure sounds weird – games three days a week for seven months? That's like taking the NFL, doubling the schedule, and only letting the special teams play. And the results would probably be equally worthless.
That third point is, I think, one of the biggest parts of the overall problem – just shy of 1/3 of all MLS games this season have ended in either 1-0 or 0-0 scores. Think about it. That means that if you go to an MLS game, you've got at least a 33% chance of seeing damn near nothing happen all game. I don't know about you, but that doesn't sound like how I want to spend any day of the week, let alone a Saturday or Sunday.
A big problem with MLS is what used to be wrong with the NHL – it isn't the low number of goals that makes it dull, it's the low number of goal opportunities that does it. Players aren't just not scoring, they're not even close to scoring for most of the game. In some ways, that fact is understandable.
In hockey, players are covering a surface that is roughly 8,000 square feet, and they do it in 30 to 90 second shifts and spurts over the course of 60 minutes of actual game time. In soccer, they play on a surface that is roughly 8,000 square yards, and they do it almost constantly over the course of a 90 minute game.
I've seen hockey players be completely gassed at the end of a game, so I can only imagine soccer players, who are likely not going all out, because they know how dead they'll be at the end if they don't. I expect this creates a lot of time where players aren't giving their physical all for the sake of surviving the whole game. Healthy and safe, yes, interesting to watch, no.
That said, European leagues follow pretty much the same rules and have significantly more scoring (and scoring chances) in their matches, so "this is a physically hard sport" may not cover the MLS's behinds.
So where does that all leave us? Can David Beckham save the MLS? No, of course he can't, not by himself. Nor can he even in the more broad "image of the sport" sense – unless you count an improvement from 0 to 0.5 progress. Is the MLS worth saving? The excitement surrounding the Olympics and the World Cup show that soccer fandom is there to be had, but I don't know if the powers that be in the league will find the right way to attract it. David Beckhams right foot (and wife) certainly aren't it.