In January 2007, the sports world was shocked when the highest profile player in soccer announced he was leaving one of the game’s most prestigious clubs to play in America.
When David Beckham announced he was leaving Real Madrid that July to go play for MLS’ L.A. Galaxy, the massive press conference in the City of Angeles left many scratching their heads as to why? Others asking could it be real? Some Americans wondering who he was and what is the MLS?
Ten years ago, soccer in America was at a very different place than it is today. There was hardly any push for MLS and anyone watching the game on a massive scale like there is a decade later. Some Americans didn’t even have a clue there was a pro league in the country and those that did, really didn’t pay much attention.
That quickly changed when one of the most recognizable and marketable faces on the planet said he was going to play in the States.
The $250 Million Dollar Man
As 2006 came to a close, rumblings that David Beckham could be leaving Read Madrid after joining the iconic club in the summer of 2003. Many speculated that the British footballer would go back to England, possibly back to his boyhood club Manchester United, or go to Italy.
At the start of the 2006/2007 season, Italian tactician Fabio Capello became the manager of Madrid and straight away he and Becks didn’t see eye to eye. Under Capello, Beckham seldom played and was benched for a majority of the first half of that season.
By that December, it looked like the man known as “Golden Balls” wanted out of the Spanish city and reportedly told his personal manager, Simon Fuller, to put him on the market in the coming January transfer window.
Eleven days after hitting the transfer market, the most unlikely candidate emerged and successfully signed soccer’s biggest name and the world’s most famous face.
During a warm California afternoon on January 11, David Beckham was presented to the city of Los Angeles as the next Galaxy member where he would join stars Landon Donovan and Cobi Jones.
The main difference between Beckham and the two club heroes was the price tag. Beckham inked a $250 million deal to play for the club during the next five years. He was the highest paid player in American soccer and one the highest paid players in all of American sports as well as the world.
For many Americans, that price was absurd, for the soccer world it was one of the biggest purchases of the modern era but for Beckham, it was business as usual.
Many quipped that it was all for the money and that Beckham at 32, was washed up and needed to be relevant somehow in a lesser league.
“David Beckham will be a B-list actor living in Hollywood,” Real Madrid president Ramón Calderón said after the announcement.
Capello said that Beckham had played his final matches for Madrid and would only train for the club moving forward as he lived out his final months on his contract.
For Beckham, he took it all in stride and with his head held high. He knew that there would be critics and cynics but while it may have been for the money and a chance to break the one market he hadn’t, the player insisted it was to promote the game in the U.S.
“It’s not a big brand thing,” Beckham told Sports Illustrated in 2007. “It’s about me being the ambassador for MLS. If I can make people more aware and make kids realize that you can go in to higher levels and make a great living from playing soccer, that’s what I’m going over there to do.”
Sales of his No. 23 Galaxy jersey skyrocketed as 250,000 sold within the first weeks of his signing, the most in the club history for any player.
Tom Cruise and then-wife Katie Holmes threw a star-studded party at The Geffen Contemporary at The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) to welcome their friend to town as the likes of Will and Jada Smith partied with them. David and Victoria Beckham landed on the covers of nearly every American magazine and publication, his wife had a television deal, and this was all before he even kicked a ball in a stadium in the states.
For some, they saw it as a way for his wife to launch a TV career and elevate her fashion line’s profile. Others saw the move to L.A. for the soccer star to make even more money on his face.
However you want to look at it, David Beckham suddenly became a household name in America before he even played a game. It was a success story even before he did anything.
On July 21, during a friendly match against Chelsea in Los Angeles, Beckham came on at sometime during the second half at Home Depot Center in front of a sell out crowd that featured his family, Eva Longoria, Tom Cruise, Katie Holmes, Drew Carey, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Alyssa Milano. Beckham didn’t score, he set up a few shots and made a few free kicks and just under a million people watched at home. It wasn’t Beatlemania but it was the highest TV figures ESPN ever had for an MLS game in the leagues 12-year history at that time.
“Beckham was brought in to bring sex appeal to a Los Angeles team sorely in need of a star,” Daniel Durbin, director of the USC Annenberg Institute of Sports, Media and Society, told Reuters in 2015. “As the team representing Hollywood, the Galaxy now had the biggest celebrity in soccer and someone who regularly appeared on ‘sexiest man alive’ lists and who was married to one of the Spice Girls. You can’t get much more Hollywood than that.”
It would be a few weeks before he scored his first goal and then America started paying more attention. Those that knew Beckham knew that he wasn’t a goal scorer — instead, he is the guy that sets you up to score or if he does find the back of the net, it is due to his signature free kicks that inspired the movie, Bend it Like Beckham. Americans however like the guy who scores. They cheer for the Carmelo Anthony’s and LeBron James’ but not the Rajon Rondo’s or Chris Paul’s – those are the guys the real fans of the sport pull for. Beckham falls in the Chris Paul, Rondo territory. It is why he was able to play at high level until he retired in 2013.
The first few years for Beckham in America were rocky, the Galaxy didn’t win anything, but games in outside markets were selling out as fans around the country wanted to get a glimpse of the star.
In 2009, Beckham, seemed frustrated with the style of play in America and with his teammates, so he signed a loan deal with A.C. Milan that January which was supposed to just have him play with the Italian giants for three months. Many felt that he would just train at a high level and never play, but the club’s owner, Silvio Berlusconi insisted Beckham would hit the pitch.
And play he did.
In the 2008/2009 season, Milan’s midfield maestro Andrea Pirlo seemed out of sorts and not himself. Once Beckham arrived, he found himself fighting for the first time to start a game thanks to the Englishman’s skill and style. Then coach Carlo Ancelotti saw what Beckham could do and made Pirlo fight for spot back in the starting line-up, the British player’s arrival could have been the greatest thing to ever happen to the Italian creative midfielder as he stepped up his game.
“On the pitch, Beckham sees everything before everyone else. His vision of play is better now than during his time in Manchester. He is slower but much stronger tactically and technically. He is very intelligent and works a lot,” Ancelotti said of Beckham.
The Milan fans embraced Beckham and he was back on top. Beckham embraced the Italian fashion capitol and begged to stay longer. At this point, Americans felt that the Beckham-era in the States was over but the Galaxy refused to let him go. He extended his stay by another three months and then returned to Los Angeles.
As he returned to America, MLS was beginning to look different. New York Red Bulls signed French striker and icon Thierry Henry and Mexico’s Rafa Marquez. Now, the East and West Coast were heating up with international stars.
Beckham saw out the rest of the 2009 season with L.A. and returned to Milan in January for another six-month spell, in March that year he snapped his Achilles heal and was out the remainder of the year for both clubs.
In 2011, Beckham finally won some silverware as the Galaxy took home both the MLS Cup and Supports Shield. He also resigned with the team for another year after his five-year contract expired.
That 2011 season also saw the arrival of Irish hero Robbie Keane to the Galaxy, adding more star power to the league.
The following year, Beckham won the MLS Cup again with the Galaxy and called it quits for his time in the league, which also saw the arrival of Italian international Alessandro Nesta at Montreal Impact. Little by the little, the world was trickling into MLS thanks to the Beckham appeal.
Beckham would end his career in June 2013 with PSG and officially hung up his boots following a lifetime of playing.
In his wake, MLS’ popularity grows by the year. New clubs like NYCFC, Orlando City, LAFC, Minnesota United, Atlanta FC have all emerged since he left.
Players like his former Milan teammates and World Cup winners like Kaka and Andrea Pirlo have joined the league as well as David Villa, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Frank Lampard, Sebstian Giovinco, Drogba, Julio Ceasar, Gio Dos Santos, Bradly Wright-Phillips, to name a few.
His impact and legacy is in those players as they see a way to keep playing and help bring the league to new heights each year. Some have lasted longer than others but their names are synonymous with what they have done.
As for Beckham, he is continuing his impact on MLS as he tries to get a team in Miami off the ground. The club is slated to start as soon as he can get a stadium in the city built. Rumors of major names like Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo, Zlatan Ibrahimovic have been linked with the team if and when it comes.
Since Beckham’s arrival and the impact he had, according to Reuters, “Average attendance at MLS matches often exceeds that in the National Basketball Association and National Hockey League.”