ON SOCCER: Kicked into the spotlight

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Major League Soccer often has been ignored by the soccer world, but thanks to David Beckham the league has been in the news recently - and the season hasn’t even started.

The Los Angeles Galaxy now are a famous club. AC Milan, Real Madrid, the Galaxy - they just roll off the tongue. And when were the utterances of MLS commissioner Don Garber and Galaxy chief executive officer Tim Leiweke ever so closely monitored by the European press?

The world, it seems, just can’t get enough of Beckham.

By now, most of the planet knows Beckham got his way and will remain with AC Milan through the end of the Italian season. He is slated to return to the Galaxy on July 18 and play in the final 13 regular-season games. Beckham, who reportedly paid $12 million to get out of his MLS contract, will become a Milan player once the MLS season ends.

Beckham’s return to MLS will be closely watched. Former Galaxy general manager Alexi Lalas predicted Beckham will be booed at games. And you can only imagine some of the creative banners fans will come up with - “Benedict Arnold Beckham” might be a tame response.

“I’m sure there will be some criticism,” Beckham told the BBC this week. “Real football people will say, ‘He’s passionate about playing for his country, and he knows what he has to do to make it work.’ ”

Beckham is desperate to stay on England’s team and play in the 2010 World Cup. To do that, he says, he needs to play in Europe.

“The booing, the criticism - I’ve had it before,” Beckham said.

After his red card at the 1998 World Cup contributed to England’s downfall, Beckham faced scathing attacks in the media, was hung in effigy and received death threats. He fled to the United States, where his future wife was on tour with the Spice Girls.

Steve Cohen, host of the “World Soccer Daily” radio show, tried to bait New England Revolution coach Steve Nicol into a bit of Beckham-bashing this week, but Nicol would have none of it.

“People who didn’t even know the shape of a soccer ball now know about MLS and come to games because of Beckham,” Nicol said.

Cohen questioned whether Beckham would be a distraction when he returned in the middle of the season.

“Any coach in MLS would have Beckham on their team,” Nicol responded. “Even if you are top of the league, you just make one change and Beckham will only make the team better.”

Galaxy coach Bruce Arena seems happy with Beckham’s new arrangement. Only Landon Donovan, who will be the center of attention until Beckham returns, sounded slightly critical.

“Personally, I wouldn’t feel that it would be fair to this team to show up midseason and have to try to integrate [myself],” he said.

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