Reuters Soccer Blog
World Soccer views and news
By Simon Evans in Miami
Television coverage of MLS’s opening game began with an attack on David Beckham from two television pundits and critics have continued to question whether the Englishman cares about the league or his club, LA Galaxy, Simon Evans says the Beckham bashing is off target.
The debate over David Beckham’s commitment to L.A Galaxy and Major League Soccer should have ended on November 22, 2009. On that rainy, cold day in Seattle, Beckham took a series of pain-killing injections, wrapped up his injured ankle in bandage and went out to face Real Salt Lake on the unforgiving artificial turf at Qwest Field.
It was hardly a vintage performance from the former Manchester United and England midfielder but he grafted for 90 minutes and then a further 30 minutes of extra-time in an ultimately failed attempt to win the MLS Cup for his team. Then, limping off the field, he walked into the Salt Lake locker-room to congratulate hiss opponents on their title before heading into his own changing room where he complied with American standards and stood to take questions from the waiting media. Invited by this reporter to pass comment on playing a championship game on a plastic pitch with a damaged ankle, Beckham showed his usual diplomacy by evading the temptation to criticise a playing surface which is designed for American football and not the global game.
That MLS Cup game had come at the end of a year in which Beckham had to deal with the fallout from a book which discussed the difficulties he and L.A Galaxy had in developing a working relationship. In Grant Wahl’s behind-the-scenes book, ”The Beckham Experiment” he was criticised for not picking up the check for the entire team’s dinner and a series of other offences in a fascinating account which, as one former MLS player put it to me, could have been subtitled “Why Landon Donovan Doesn’t Like Being Overshadowed by David Beckham”. The former Real Madrid title winner was offended that Donovan had questioned his professionalism and the rift between the two took some work and time to heal. But that night in Seattle, even American soccer’s favourite son was fulsome in his praise for his English team-mate. “This guy has been hurt or sick for probably the last six or seven games but he gets on with it and he plays. That’s helped our team a lot,” said Donovan.
MLS’s foreign imports have grabbed most of the headlines over the past few years, understandably given the name recognition of players such as David Beckham and Thierry Henry, but one of the most fascinating aspects of this season will be the progress of a new generation of American players on the fringe of the national team. Sporting KC striker Teal Bunbury and New York Red Bulls forward Juan Agudelo are fancied by many as a future pairing for Bob Bradley’s team but they will need to deliver week-in-week-out in MLS. Red Bulls defender Tim Ream had an excellent first year and will likely be scouted heavily by European clubs this season. Portland Timbers attacker Darlington Nagbe was born in Liberia but is seeking naturalization and there is a lot of buzz about his potential.
DIG THE NEW BREED
The Pacific North-West should provide plenty of lively derby action this year with the Seattle Sounders, the best-supported team in the league, joined by two new teams — local rivals Portland Timbers and Northern neighbours Vancouver Whitecaps. Both clubs are technically ‘expansion franchises’ but don’t confuse them with recent creations such as the Philadelphia Union and Real Salt Lake who started from scratch. Both the Timbers and the Whitecaps existed in the old NASL and continued in second tier soccer up until last season. Both have good fan-bases who expect an instant impact. Both were able to build upon their backroom and on-field staff from the second tier. In short – both are more like typical promoted teams in European leagues – they have to step up to a new level on the field and can expect some fresh impetus off the field. It should be fascinating to watch how they fare in their first season with the big boys. Who will make the bigger impact?
SHINY, HAPPY PEOPLE?
The Kansas City Wizards were not one of MLS’s big success stories having averaged crowds of around 10,000 for most of their existence – initially playing at the 80,000 capacity Arrowhead Stadium, home to the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs and then at a cozier but not-very soccer friendly minor-league baseball park. This season all that changes. The rather silly-sounding Wizards name has been dropped in favour of Sporting Kansas City – mocked by some as being a pretentious Euro-wannabe name (Sporting Club being a historic team in Lisbon, Portugal) but surely an upgrade on the Wizards? This season the team also move into their own, shiny new, purpose built 18,500 venue – Livestrong Sporting Park. The venue isn’t quite ready so the first eight games of the season for Sporting will be on the road but it will be interesting to see if the rebrand and the new home manage to attract more fans. That certainly helped New York Red Bulls last year – when they moved into Red Bull Arena their average home gate rose from 12,229 to 18,441.
The 15th Major League Soccer season kicks off on Thursday as fans thankfully turn their thoughts from collective-bargaining agreements and guaranteed contracts, to action on the field, safe in the knowledge that the only strikers making the news this week will be those who score goals.
Others will make their judgments on the deal that avoided a strike — but what is certain is that the new five-year contract and modest salary structure ensures not only that MLS will start on Thursday (Seattle Sounders host the Philadelphia Union) but also that it will enter its 20th year in much the same status as it began its first – a league featuring a surprising number of good players, being paid a surprisingly low amount of money.
After a week of largely upbeat build-up and nationwide publicity for a sport that so often struggles to get space, the league’s title deciding game, MLS Cup, was played out in front of over 46,000 fans here in Seattle – the city that is staking a strong claim to be the de facto home of U.S soccer.
Milan have just announced the deal on their website (just in Italian for now), meaning any lingering hopes Premier League clubs had of changing the England midfielder’s mind have finally been dashed.
The prospect of former Real Madrid player David Beckham lining up against a new Barcelona-Miami franchise was a soccer marketing man’s dream — the most marketable man in the game against one of the biggest team brands, playing in the ‘capital of the Americas’.
A couple of months ago that scenario looked on the cards, with Beckham tied into a long-term deal with the L.A Galaxy and Barcelona’s Miami bid for a 2011 MLS expansion slot widely considered a ‘shoe in’.