David Beckham crouched low in front of the MLS Cup, a Cheshire grin etched across his bronzed face. His three young sons Brooklyn, Romeo and Cruz chased after their dad as he posed for the cameras, medal slung from his neck and a Union Jack draped over his shoulders.
The usually golden Californian sky was rather sullen and dreary, but sprayed champagne and celebratory streamers illuminated the background at the Home Depot Centre. Barely a strand of hair was out of place from Beckham’s perfectly manicured slicked back mane, as the poster boy for Major League Soccer soaked in the moment. Houston Dynamo had just been vanquished and he was an MLS champion in his final game for LA Galaxy.
It was the perfect Hollywood ending to a Hollywood script at the Hollywood franchise. Much like in Tinseltown though, the reality isn’t as comfortable as the accepted narrative.
Beckham’s five-year sojourn stateside was notable for the low points that didn’t fit so neatly alongside his perceived successes. The trophy laden glamour, the VIP front row appearances at NBA games alongside celebrities and ‘unidentified fans’, as well as the presidential audiences all serve to preserve the image of a figure who led MLS from the darkened times without so much as TV rights fees and into global consciousness.
When Beckham was unveiled he helped usher in a new model for Major League Soccer, namely the Designated Player (DP) rule. MLS had and still has a salary cap – now $436,250 per player – but the DP legislation allowed clubs one contracted player above that in an attempt to attract big name superstars from Europe. Beckham was the proverbial guinea pig – or smoked pancetta – when he agreed a multi-million dollar, multi-year contract with LA Galaxy.
The former England captain’s unveiling at the Home Depot Centre in July 2007 set the tone for what was to come. Introduced in front of a gathered audience of supporters and media at an elaborate press conference featuring cheerleaders as well as confetti, Beckham took to the stage in a sole breasted grey suit with a silver skinny tie, bleached blonde tight hair and shadowy stubble, nicely conforming to the Hollywood caricature. “The most important thing is my family, the second most important thing is the foot … soccer.”
Beckham’s Freudian slip immediately belied a slight uneasiness, a feeling that would remain throughout his time on the West Coast. Sure, Beckham undeniably drew in eyes to the sport in the US. I mean, how many people outside of North America were aware of LA Galaxy before the iconic number 7, later 23, joined?
His impact and appeal was more cultural than sporting. Beckham was a topic of discussion, but usually in celebrity gossip circles alongside Justin Bieber and the Kardashians rather than the back pages with Tom Brady and Shaquille O’Neal. Beckham brought a glittering cache to MLS, but MLS was equally good for Brand Beckham.
American sporting fans were perpetually miffed with the Beckham spectacle, something that will surprise outsiders. If Beckham so much as trotted across the pitch to whip in a corner, he was greeted with mass hysteria, more akin to screaming teenage girls catching a glimpse of One Direction.
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There is another train of thought that suggests Beckham had a destabilising effect on the league as a whole. He dictated the terms of his contract, missed training sessions and jumped ship to AC Milan for two loan moves in as many years. When Beckham reconvened, he failed to figure out why Galaxy fans and players, most notably Landon Donovan, were hostile to him.
“I was given the chance to play for one of the biggest clubs in the world and still be contracted to my club. Ask any player in any league in the world and, if they were given the chance to spend a bit more time at one of the biggest clubs in the world, not one player would turn that down.”
The infamous image of him hopping the advertising hoardings to confront a boisterous supporter bellowing abuse from the stands went viral, although fortunately for Beckham, security intervened before he went full on Eric Cantona.
Beckham’s argument was that he needed to stay competitive in order to make England’s squad for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. When he snapped his Achilles tendon off the bone – ironically lining out for Milan – and that dream died, Beckham won some of his doubters around when he exclusively focused on playing for Galaxy in his last couple of years.
Younger players and experienced pros alike expressed their gratitude and fortune to have played with such a world-renowned figure. MLS commissioner Don Garber deemed Beckham’s time in the league a success. “If this had been a failed experience with David then it would really have set us back as a league. But it hasn’t.” Basketball legend Magic Johnson even thanked Beckham for “making pro soccer in the USA relevant”.
In purely sporting terms though, it would be a stretch to say that Beckham was the primary instigator for top level players embracing MLS for the professional challenge as well as a viable financial option. That would be Thierry Henry.
Henry was a different calibre of talent to anything the MLS consumer had witnessed before. He embarrassed defences, scored plenty of goals and with his pace dwindling, adapted from a striker to a creating a number ten. In terms of natural football ability, Henry was on a different scale to everyone else. He also lived the New York lifestyle and was a cultural icon in a different sense.
Beckham was the first transcendent foreign star in MLS. In a lot of ways, he broke the mould for future guys to follow. To say he was the primary instigator of an improved quality in MLS would be untrue though. Henry and Donovan, and now Robbie Keane and Sebastian Giovinco, are the true measure of what a Designated Player should be.
By Conor Kelly. Follow @ConorPacKelly