Ten years ago as of last Wednesday, the Los Angeles Galaxy purchased David Beckham, an English soccer player from Real Madrid on a five-year contract worth 250 million dollars. Many considered his hefty transfer to be the precursor of a significant breakthrough in the standard and the popularity of soccer in the United States, both within Major League Soccer (MLS) and for the Men’s National Team. After all, Beckham was at the time one of the most marketable athletes in all of sports since the turn of the century, and more importantly the first world-class soccer player in the MLS era. But looking back now, is there a definitive ‘before’ and ‘after’ with David Beckham’s move to the MLS?
Well, right now, the standard of soccer in the United States is reminiscent of an awkward dancer: they more or less have the steps (the system) down, but the rhythm (culture) still lags far behind.
The United States is undoubtedly still learning the “steps” of soccer. While there have been multiple professional soccer leagues in the United States in the past, none of them were able to remain afloat for even two decades, ultimately due to a lack of popularity. Considering that the MLS was founded 24 years ago in 1993 and is still growing, it is all but safe to say that the MLS is here to stay. After another decade of development that has seen the addition of nine new professional teams to the league, with four more teams being added by 2018, the MLS is quickly expanding its presence across the country. This, combined with the increasing number of American player development academies clearly signifies the United States’ ambition to breed world-class players of their own both within the MLS and for the national team.
One must remember, however, that learning the steps is futile if you have no rhythm.
For over a century, the United States has had a thriving culture in several sports, but that list has never included soccer. Although 24 years is a long lifetime for a professional soccer league in the States, it is minuscule in comparison to that of America’s mainstream sports. The American professional baseball, basketball, football and hockey (Canadian-American) leagues have existed for 114, 71, 96, and 99 years respectively, meaning that Americans have been watching and playing these longstanding sports since long before soccer meant anything to the general public on a domestic level. In doing so, the “steps” have long been ingrained into the minds of many of these kids, some of whom then utilize them in pursuing a competitive sports career. More importantly, these experiences as both observers and participants has helped to develop a culture within each of these sports that has collectively become a part of the identity of the United States. The entertainment is there, the prestige is there, and the experience is there.
There is rhythm flowing through the veins of these American sports fans.
The rhythm of soccer, on the other hand, has always felt foreign to the United States, because, well, it is. Players almost exclusively use their feet to play, while feet are rarely used as the primary means of operation in mainstream American sports. Regular season games can end in a 0-0 tie, as opposed to the extra innings or overtime period(s) that guarantees victory to one specific team. Professional teams can compete in up to five different competitions within the same season, whereas in the States, there is always a regular season followed by playoffs, all for one trophy. On a global scale, despite the incredible success of the women’s national team, the more followed men’s national team has never gotten past the quarter-final of the FIFA World Cup, the most coveted trophy in the world of soccer.
Furthermore, even though soccer is the most popular sport in the world, it is also the one sport in which the United States does not own bragging rights. While the American professional leagues of the aforementioned sports are each considered the best professional leagues in the world, this is not the case in soccer. The best soccer players in the world aim to play in Europe, which is widely considered the highest level of competition in the world. Unlike American kids who pursue a multitude of sports at their own will, so many children from around the world grow up watching only soccer, establishing an innate sense of dedication towards learning the “steps” and adopting the “rhythm” of the beautiful game.
With that being said, the MLS is decades away from coming even the slightest bit close to the standard of soccer that exists across the top leagues in Europe. David Beckham’s move to the LA Galaxy in 2007 acted as an invitation to long-established world-class talents to play in the MLS towards the ends of their career, after already being past their respective primes. Household players including Didier Drogba, Tim Cahill, Ashley Cole, Jermaine Defoe, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Kaka, Thierry Henry, Alessandro Nesta and Andrea Pirlo have all played in the MLS since Beckham’s move in 2007. While the addition of such famous soccer players has helped increased the appeal of the MLS to Americans, it does not reflect positively on the standard of the league nor does it help to increase it.
On the other side of his career, now 18-year old Christian Pulisic from Hershey, Pennsylvania, signed a professional contract at the age of 16 with German club Borussia Dortmund, where he has already received regular playing time, scoring multiple goals for his team. Moving to Germany was an easy decision for Pulisic, who is now considered to be one of the brightest young talents to come out of the United States, for he knew that playing in the United States would only be detrimental towards reaching his untapped and arguably world-class potential.
So what can we as Americans do to develop the rhythm of soccer?
This is the only time that you will ever see me saying this: Watch more television. In 2013 and 2014, NBC Sports Cable Network aired two seasons of the Premier League, the professional soccer league in England, which is widely considered to be the best professional soccer league in the world. Viewership of the Premier League increased considerably between those two seasons, inspiring NBCSN to sign a $1 billion contract with the Premier League for exclusive broadcasting rights. Signing such a large contract serves as a statement by major American television networks, considering the fact that they recognized the development of a long-term increase in the popularity of European soccer in the United States.
It has been stated time and time again that watching top-level soccer does indeed help aspiring players to increase their “soccer IQ”, or their knowledge of the mechanics of the game. As more and more Americans tune in to watch the fast-paced excitement of the Premier League, I believe that their continued interest will gradually help Americans in developing that rhythm that has been lacking in American soccer for so many years. Specifically, as more children watch the highest standard of soccer, they will be more in touch with the game on a global scale, and those kids will be increasingly motivated to become a great talent themselves.
The only thing we can do other than study up is to keep young talents like Christian Pulisic at home, so that we can build a powerful professional league upon a foundation of homegrown talent, rather than upon the temporary stints of past-prime foreign soccer players.
Bye, Bye, Beckham
With the thin culture of soccer that had existed in the United States as well as the young age of the MLS at the time, David Beckham’s transfer to the LA Galaxy in 2007 was never going to make a significant short-term impact on soccer in the States. His move did not have any evident influence the expansion of the MLS, or on the increasing number of player development academies across the country. While I do not necessarily believe it myself, one could argue that he did have a long-term impact on soccer in the United States simply by signing a contract. His move to the MLS was one of the biggest sports publicity stunts of the century, and one that may have helped catalyze in some small way a mainstream American interest in the sport of soccer,
With or without the help of David Beckham, here we stand in 2017 as an awkward dancer in the world of soccer.