- The Washington Times - Friday, January 19, 2007

The cynics sneered at the news of David Beckham’s move to Major League Soccer, insinuating that he couldn’t save the league, just as Pele failed to save the old North America Soccer League. Sadly, they are under the false assumption that MLS needs to be saved.

While MLS may have gone slightly stale in recent years, it in no way needs a Messiah. MLS is backed by deep pockets and seemingly here for the long haul. The league actually is set in stone — as in concrete stadiums being built specifically for professional soccer.

While the old NASL played games in venues built for gridiron football and baseball, MLS is solidifying its future by establishing its own stadiums. A group of investors just bought D.C. United — which averaged more than 18,000 fans in 2006 — for a league-record $33 million. They plan to build a venue in Anacostia.

And all that happened before the Beckham news. The idea that Beckham is here to save MLS is misleading. What Beckham will do is give the league exposure, credibility and hopefully take it to a new level. The week before Beckham signed there were only 25 stories on MLS in the major papers according to a search in the LexisNexis database. The week after Beckham signed there were 3,000 stories.

MLS began with the goal of not becoming the NASL and was guided by the philosophy of avoiding the pitfalls that killed that league. That’s why it has taken 12 years before the owner-operators of MLS teams have finally been allowed to splurge some money on a big-name player.

“[NASL] didn’t have the careful strategic expansion plan that we have,” MLS commissioner Don Garber said. “They didn’t have the depth of ownership that we have. They didn’t have the four network and cable television partners that we have paying us rights fees. They didn’t have soccer-specific stadiums. … And mostly, the country at that time did not have the massive fan following that we have.”

Comparing MLS and NASL is like comparing chalk and cheese.

• NASL had no soccer-specific stadiums, while half of the MLS teams play in their own unique venues.

• The NASL was mainly filled with foreign players. MLS is loaded with Americans and is trading U.S. talent to overseas clubs.

• NASL owners spent at will. MLS owners can only buy one player outside the salary cap.

• NASL was in an environment where few youths played and there were few college teams. More than 20 million young players now participate in the game and almost every college has a soccer program.

• NASL had a TV deal that failed. MLS has a solid TV deal with ABC and ESPN, plus there are now TV channels dedicated to soccer.

• The World Cup ratings in the days of NASL were non-existent. The 2006 MLS ratings on ESPN and ABC were the best ever.

• Since the demise of NASL, the U.S. men’s team has competed in five consecutive World Cups. The U.S. women have won two World Cups (in 1991 and 1999).

• NASL never averaged crowds in a season of more than 14,440. MLS averaged 17,406 in its first season and 15,504 in 2006.

Beckham understands and appreciates the American sports landscape. His goal is to help soccer secure its niche.

“I’m not saying me coming over to the U.S. is going to make soccer the biggest sport in America, because that’s going to be very difficult,” Beckham said. “But I think soccer has a huge, huge potential. If I didn’t believe I can make a difference and take soccer to a different level, I wouldn’t have signed for five years.”

United news — D.C. United’s preseason schedule is as follows: Danish club Odense Boldklub (Feb. 6), Columbus Crew (Feb. 11), New York Red Bulls (Feb. 14) and the Kansas City Wizards (Feb. 18). Games take place in Bradenton, Fla. United plays CD Olimpia in Honduras in the first of two CONCACAF Champions’ Cup games on Feb. 21. The two teams face off again at RFK Stadium on March 1. …

The Bob Bradley/Peter Nowak coaching era with the U.S. national team begins today when the Americans take on Denmark in Carson, Calif. The U.S. team plays Ecuador in Tampa, Fla., on March 25.

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