David Beckham, who sparked a wave of "Beckhamania" one year ago when he joined the Los Angeles Galaxy, has seen the fascination slow and Major League Soccer grow due in part to his arrival.
The 33-year-old English international midfielder still draws sellout crowds, quadrupling New York Red Bulls attendance to more than 46,000 earlier this month, and Beckham souvenirs remain among the league's most popular items. While the hype has cooled, attendance leaps when Beckham arrives in MLS venues and he deserves a lion's share of credit for the growth spurt the US league is enjoying, the latest example being plans to add two teams by 2011.
"I'd like to think so," Beckham said of his playing a major role in boosting the sport in America. "It's one of the reasons why I moved here, to be a part of growing the game here. Hopefully people are seeing the changes. Attendances are up 20 percent. Shirt sales are up 780 percent, so I heard. So it's going well. That's obviously what the game needs in this country. The hype is there and it's just about keeping it going."
Beckham's 250 million-dollar deal to jump from Real Madrid to the Galaxy brought him and wife Victoria, better known to many as Posh Spice of the Spice Girls, to Hollywood and they have been regulars on the celebrity scene. While Beckham missed most of his debut season with injuries, he has fulfilled the promise of last year's hoopla this season in quieter fashion and helped ensure the long-term stability and growth of the US football league.
"Soccer is definitely changing in this country and it's getting bigger, but it's going to take time," Beckham said. "It's not just going to happen in a year or two. It's a long-term plan to raise the profile of the game in the country and it's going well so far."
MLS has 14 teams, adding Toronto last year and San Jose this season. Seattle Sounders will join next year with Philadelphia to follow in 2010 and MLS commissioner Don Garber said Thursday that two new clubs will be added by 2011.
Cities being considered for the newest clubs include Montreal, Ottawa and Vancouver in Canada and the US markets of Atlanta, Las Vegas, Portland, St. Louis and a second club in the New York area.
"There are a lot of people putting a lot of money into this league and trying to grow it, and in the next few years you're going to see that emergence," Beckham said. "I've always said that the level here is a lot higher than people actually think it is. I've been here a year now and seen some of the talented players and teams that are in this league."
Beckham, whose contract runs through to 2011, has scored five goals and set up seven more for the Galaxy in 16 MLS matches this year. The Galaxy missed the 2007 playoffs but are fighting for the Western Conference lead this year.
More time, money and support will be needed to transform MLS into a league capable of luring big-name stars in their prime from European clubs, but Beckham sees a bright future for US players such as Jozy Altidore, who went to Villarreal of Spain last month from New York.
A long road ahead
"It's going to take longer than a year to happen, but this league and the teams in it will start attracting players from Europe," Beckham said. "It's not just about ticket sales. It's not just about attendances. It's not just about selling shirts.
"On the other side, you see Jozy Altidore go to Villareal and so if you're a good player in this league, you're going to have a chance to play in other big leagues in the world, in Europe.
"To be honest, I've always said that the level is a lot higher here than people actually think it is. Every game is a tough game. We do want to get it to the level of other leagues in the world.
"It will take time, but it's not that far away."