Growing up a caucasian soccer fan in Southern California usually meant watching Mexican players I had never heard of wear white Joma cleats while listening to Andres Cantor on Univision or Telemundo. This was all fine and good until the moment you realize that when AYSO teammates call you,"lampara" they’re not exactly being complementary.
It seemed like things would change in 1996, when the MLS first opened its doors to fans and players who weren’t good enough to play anywhere else. My father and and I would drive to The Rose Bowl and park on the grass to watch Jorge Campos, Mauricio Cienfuegos, Cobi Jones, Eduardo "El Tanque" Hurtado, wreak havoc on players nowhere near their skill levels.There were no vuvuzelas and no organized chants. There were fans, accompanied with drums, cheering louder for Mexican internationals and booing US-born players.
The large Hispanic population surrounding the Galaxy has always meant attendance and interest in the team was stronger than most other squads in the league. Less familiar names -- albeit well-known names in their home countries -- like: Carlos Ruiz, Luis Hernandez and Carlos Hermosillo had served as quasi-ambassadors for MLS with the Latino population. But, unsurprisingly, none became the ambassador to everyone in the way that David Beckham did. Not just for the Galaxy, but for the entire league.
It should come as no surprise the day following David Beckham’s former teammates came out praising the midfielder’s on and off the field contributions. Teammates, he was rumored to not speak to some of the time. There is good reason for this public display of affection. The MLS and it’s small group of owners, yearn for expansion in bigger markets.
The proposed 20th club in New York-- a Brooklyn Nets to the Red Bulls -- owned by the Yankees and the Premier League’s Manchester City for 100 million dollars is the type of move the MLS could never of pulled off before Beckham’s arrival in California. The co-sign of Beckham on Major League Soccer has shown those cautious to get in bed with the league that doing so won’t be a disaster.
Before Beckham, who did all the gringos have in Los Angeles Galaxy uniforms to relate to? Better yet, what about in the whole league? While Clint Mathis is a worthy argument, many were looking towards the worlds abundance of other leagues for players of common heritage. Soccer is a hotbed of nationalism. We like to root for our own in club AND country. I’m sorry, but rooting for a flashy latino striker who burns the U.S. in hexagonal qualifying every four years isn’t easy to forget come MLS season.
Not all of his impact is deep cultural change. A great deal of it boils down to the almighty dollar. The man is a money making machine. His stints anywhere bring in large amounts of press and interest in the product. No where has the impact been felt more than in America where soccer takes a back seat to at least three other sports.
His merchandise sales alone were a game changer. Before Becks, it was near impossible to get any MLS jersey with any type of name affixed to the back. After his arrival, it was rare to find a piece of merch without the signature 23 on the back. Fans of all shapes and sizes grabbed onto Beckham and what he brought with him. No longer was the Galaxy a team which pandered to a certain demographic, they were a franchise with the facial recognition needed to make the next step.
Beckham proved that MLS was not a place where flailing former greats went to play out the string, and proved that he could still perform on the big stage at the ripe age of 38. His passion and desire to win was inescapable when viewed in person. Whether he was taking his shirt off in response to shrills from teenage girls, or running back to play defense on a quick counter attack, Beckham gave all of himself to the Galaxy and MLS. This hasn’t always been the case with marquee players. Most are in it for themselves and the compensation they are receiving. The team, let alone the league, most often take a backseat to the ego. Becks never made us feel that way. He made us feel like we -- the fans, the teams and the league itself -- were as important to him as he was to us.
Part of this is because Beckham has given us many ways to remember him: international icon, footballer, and sex symbol. In the end most will fall somewhere in these reasons for remembering Beckham and settle on the six years he spent as English national team captain and his continued work as a philanthropist. Although his on-the-field play never quite lived up to his stature in the culture, his hard work and ability to make more-than-due with what he’s been given show why he was the first to take the plunge into new opportunities. Beyond all else, his greatest strength as a footballer -- and as a man -- has always been his belief in himself.
What’s happened 30 miles west of me over the past six (more like three full) seasons he spent with my hometown Major League Soccer squad, the Galaxy, is a testament to that. The team, which shares its stadium with Chivas U.S.A., utilized Beckham’s prestige to make themselves relevant in a sports world that had previously looked at the MLS as second-tier.
This wasn’t (and more or less still isn’t) too far from the truth, but it’s less and less the overriding perception. The homegrown aspect of America’s "futbol" league does make for less than compelling soccer at times, even other stars like Thierry Henry have badmouthed the level of play, but the league really only needed one highly-regarded international player to take the plunge and push it toward its current level of respectability. Beckham did, opening the door for future large names to play here. With the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo saying they would play in North America, the league seems on a path to continued success.
As part of his original contract with Major League Soccer, Beckham had the right to purchase an MLS franchise at a reduced rate. What better way to show your love and appreciation for a team then to become an owner. As a fan I yearn for Beckham to come in and take the reigns of the franchise. He will be able to do what Alexi Lalas and his brief stint as general manager couldn’t -- turning the club into a legitimate Superclub. A brand that is recognized throughout the world as a powerhouse, one that can compete with the top clubs in the world. Not only during promotional trips but in Champions League competitions.
What could be more interesting though, is taking a team like Chivas U.S.A. -- unequivocally the least popular team in the league -- moving them from the newly named Stubhub Center to a different market and building from the ground up. His presence alone would draw those looking to take a foray into Americanism. Although the whole point of Chivas and the rabid fans that follow the original team in Mexico was to go back to the roots of MLS.
Chivas U.S.A were supposed to be the rekindling of the Galaxy of 1996. The fanbase isolated by Beckham’s arrival -- given a new team to root for. Instead the fans see through the facade and either have moved on or still follow Galaxia. Beckham can relate, even his career has had setbacks, but he managed to right the wrongs along the way. There is no undertaking he has avoided in his 20 plus year career Chivas could be the most rewarding.
Ultimately, having witnessed Beckham in his twilight was a pleasure. He made my club what it is today and I am thankful for what he did for the MLS, something Commissioner Don Garber and the league must continue to develop. Developing into a top-tier competition is a process — one a fledgling MLS has followed to near-perfection since David Beckham and his ADIDAS Predators entered the pitch. Now that he is walking away from a game that he wasn’t the best at, but one for which he has found a niche in the folklore of -- never again will someone speak of what the MLS once was without mentioning Beckham. I’m proud to say I witnessed the ascension of the league and the Galaxy going from soccer to futbol in section 103, with my own eyes.