MLS see Beckham as 'game changer'
Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber has branded the multi-million pound investment in David Beckham as a 'game-changer' for the sport in the United States. Beckham is in the final season of a five-year contract which, when it was announced, many pundits believed would mark the end of his time as a high-profile player even as he banked an estimated £128m.
Instead, the 36-year-old has remained centre stage, his ability to generate attention dragging MLS into media coverage most thought unimaginable when he first joined the
And Garber has little doubt the 36-year-old has been a force for good Stateside. "David has been a game-changer for us, on and off the field," said Garber. "We love him. It has almost been five years and now is very established in our country.
"He has become this larger than life figure. And he happens to play in our country for one of our great teams. There is no question that it was a good financial deal for David and the league. But you don't hear about the money any more. He really cares about the league. He wants to build the sport. He wants to give back to the community.
"There is something for David in trying to be the person, like Pele was decades ago, who can be a real pioneer for our sport. I am not sure what his future is or what his plans are but it would be great to have him in MLS for years to come."
Not even Beckham can put off retirement indefinitely and MLS must look beyond the former England skipper if they are to make further inroads into the public consciousness. During Manchester United's present US tour, representatives of the Premier League champions' acclaimed soccer schools programme put on a session for FC Harlem.
The club is the brainchild of Irv Smalls, a lawyer and outstanding junior American football player, keen to offer children in some of the most deprived parts of New York a chance to better themselves. There was nothing particularly sensational about the session itself. The amazement came from the knowledge that what would be replicated one hundred-fold in so many UK towns and cities was the only one in existence in the entire area of New York.
"Realistically, at this stage of our development, our aims can be no bigger than just giving kids the chance to play," said Smalls. "MLS players tend to be recruited through colleges and that is where we are channelling people to try and make the best of themselves, both educationally and football-wise."
Smalls' work and the enthusiasm that surrounds FC Harlem is infectious, the pity only that he cannot do more. Yet it was also hard to escape the feeling that players of real talent are being lost to the sport through either ignorance or an over-reliance on the college system for what, worldwide, is a game of the masses and welded into a working class culture for whom, even now, further education is not an automatic path to follow.
"There is no shortage of kids playing football," argued Garber. "There are 20 million out there. More people play soccer in the USA than in England because we are a bigger country. There are no obstacles in that sense. The difficulty is that the pyramid narrows very quickly here. The challenge for us is how do you continue to develop them, to make them better, put them into MLS academies, graduate them and hopefully have them become big stars."