A recent training session of the Los Angeles Galaxy found only four fans braving the 90-degree heat to watch the relatively anonymous soccer stars execute their training drills on a beautifully manicured field a few hundred yards from the 27,000-seat Home Depot Center. But the tranquility of those training sessions may be about to end, as fans, groupies and paparazzi jostle for a glimpse of the Galaxy's new signing English superstar David Beckham. Starting with a game on July 21, the former Real Madrid "galactico" will put his creative midfield skills to work creating and scoring goals for the Galaxy. But that's only part of the job: In reality, he will become the face of Major League Soccer, the AAA baseball of global soccer. Becks will bring his chiseled chin, blond locks, and all-round star power on the field and off it and, of course, his pop star wife Victoria "Posh Spice" Beckham to the United States. With a reality TV show in the works, a global soccer tour, a promotion with American football star Reggie Bush, and a budding friendship with Tom Cruise, Beckham is trying to do what many have tried before: popularize soccer in a mostly indifferent nation.
Galaxy president and former U.S. World Cup star Alexi Lalas has brought Beckham to these shores in a repeat of what the New York Cosmos tried 32 years ago by bringing Pele to play in the now-defunct North American Soccer League. For leaving behind the top-tier clubs of Europe, Beckham will earn $250 million from a combination of sponsorship deals, merchandizing sales and a percentage of club profits.
"It's going to be a circus, but it is fun when the circus comes to town," says Lalas, who seems to love needling the Beckham-obsessed English press. In recent weeks he has called the globally watched English Premier League an "inferior product" because only a handful of big-money teams have a realistic chance of winning its championship. Beckham, former England captain whose virtuoso free kicks made him a national hero (and spawned the movie title Bend It Like Beckham) is also one of the country's most obsessively followed celebrities. His book, My Side, was the fastest-selling autobiography in British history. Tempting him to leave behind Spanish champions Real Madrid was a major coup for Lalas.
Last January, Lalas, his coach and other Galaxy executives began discussing who, if they had carte blanche, they would they want to add to their roster. While the MLS has a salary cap, they wanted to capitalize on a new rule (now commonly known as the "Beckham Rule"), which allows teams to designate one player whose salary doesn't count against the cap. Beckham topped their wish list because of his popularity in England, Europe and Asia, where his hairstyle and fashion sense can create instant pop-culture trends. Like Michael Jordan, Beckham transcends soccer, and the worldwide attention, as well as jersey and ticket sales, would make an immediate impact on the Galaxy and the MLS' bottom-line. But currently, the trend is in the other direction: Even the best American players in the MLS eventually transfer to European leagues, particularly the English Premiership, along with most of the world's top soccer talent. It seemed unlikely that an established European star like Beckham would move to the U.S., but whattheheck they approached him. In their favor, they had the fact that Beckham's career was flagging: He was having difficulty cracking the starting lineup at Real, and he had lost his place on the England team. What they also had, of course, was a great deal of money, and a chance for Beckham to pursue Hollywood aspirations.
For the English icon, the Galaxy's offer seemed smarter way to end a storied career than riding the pine for Real or transferring to a lesser English or European team. With Beckham in their midfield, Galaxy execs dream of creating a "global brand," where they play games against the world's top teams, and attract better players and more fans. His July 21 debut is against London powerhouse Chelsea, although it's an exhibition match of the sort that European clubs rarely take seriously.
Even before he takes the field, Beckham's impact is unmistakable. MLS jersey sales are already up 300% from last year, with much of the interest coming from Beckham replicas; the league expects that its stadiums will be filled when the Beckham circus comes to town; and MLS loyalists will claim vindication from the international interest in the U.S. league prompted by Beckham's presence. "David Beckham blows through the clutter in the sports-entertainment market because he transcends sport, he is a cultural icon," says Don Garber, MLS commissioner. "There really is only one David Beckham."
After clinching the deal, Beckham's European season took an unexpected turn. As Real Madrid's title challenge floundered, the coach who had vowed that the Englishman would never again play for the Spanish giants restored him to the starting lineup. And with that, Real started a winning streak that took them all the way to the championship, which they won on the final day of the season, with Becks' new pals Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes cheering him on in Bernabeu Stadium. He was playing so well that in May, Beckham was recalled for England, and assisted three of England's four goals in the two games he played. Suddenly, Beckham became, once again, a desirable commodity among the top teams of Europe. But the lowly Los Angeles Galaxy had cleverly slipped past them all.
Beckham's impact on the field is still an open question. Besides scoring free kicks, his specialty is providing assists through quality crosses to his team's forwards. At a recent match against DC United, the Galaxy's Cobi Jones crossed several balls to attackers unmarked in the penalty box, only to see the chances he'd created muffed or sent to the 16th row. It wasn't a particularly pretty or productive brand of soccer. So what will happen when Beckham starts kicking the ball to open players and they start missing them? The English press will be ruthless, of course, but Lalas is confident. "He's going to be great and he's going to do things that many of our players can't do," says Lalas, "but I think the world is going to be surprised at the level of play here. "
Despite Lalas' outward confidence, he is frantically trying to add new and better players and says that when the Beckham deal was announced his phone wouldn't stop ringing from eager agents. Despite having the league's best player in Landon Donovan, the Galaxy is 3-5-4 and in second to last place in its division, so the Galaxy hopes Beckham's arrival will give the team a much-needed boost on the field. The level of play will probably be better with the addition of Beckham, which is important for the league. Although there is a notion that American soccer fans are unsophisticated, MLS Commissioner Garber believes that the level of interest and soccer smarts is very high, and they expect the best when they watch a match. American soccer fans tend to watch English or European leagues on satellite or cable television, but with the signing of Beckham and other players (the Chicago Fire signed popular Mexican forward Cuauhtemoc Blanco this year under the Beckham rule), the MLS hopes increasing revenue will allow the league to become competitive with every league in the world. Says Garber: "The way the rest of the world sees us? A slowly awakening sleeping giant."
Starting July 21, the MLS will be a lot more interesting. And the handful of fans that show up for Galaxy training sessions may find they have a lot of company.