- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 7, 2007

The “Age of Beckham” is about to begin for American soccer, and that’s not the only news entering the 12th season of MLS soccer.

The new season opens today when D.C. United visits the Colorado Rapids. The upcoming arrival of David Beckham to the Los Angeles Galaxy in July has given the league plenty of exposure, overshadowing other positive moves.

“He has delivered, if not overdelivered,” MLS commissioner Don Garber of Beckham.

While the Beckham phenomenon is stunning, there’s much more happening in the MLS as the league continues to make inroads into America’s sporting landscape.

MLS has added a 13th team, FC Toronto. The league’s first Canadian outfit will join United in the Eastern Conference. Toronto has sold a record 14,000 season tickets and will be the first MLS team making its league debut in its own soccer-specific stadium.

“There’s been more buzz and anticipation about this team than in MLS history,” Garber said.

Toronto and Colorado join five other teams now playing in their own stadiums. Two other soccer venues — for the New York Red Bulls and Real Salt Lake — are being built.

Not so long ago only three owners — Phil Anschutz, Lamar Hunt and Robert Kraft — were involved in the league. Now there are 10 owners, including a new partnership group at D.C. United involving former Duke basketball players Christian Laettner and Brian Davis.

More cash is flooding into the league, with teams clinching shirt advertisement deals for the first time, notably the Galaxy landing a five-year, $5 million deal with nutrition group Herbalife.

The league is collecting fees from televised games for the first time after signing major deals with ABC, ESPN, Univision and Fox Soccer Channel. Every MLS game will be televised, and for the first time all United games will be broadcast locally.

Games also will have a new look. Teams will walk out together from the tunnel in front of the referees to the sound of the league’s new anthem recorded in the Czech Republic last month, in order to “conform with the traditions of international soccer,” according to MLS deputy commissioner Ivan Gazidis.

The league also has a new and intriguing playoff format. The eight playoff teams will include the top two from each conference and four wild-card teams with the highest point totals, regardless of conference.

But by far the biggest news affecting MLS this season is the impending arrival of Beckham, a sports icon who will draw unprecedented attention to the league.

“Beckham is a great addition, not just because of the exposure but because Beckham is still a good player,” United midfielder Ben Olsen said. “We brought in star power before, but we brought them in when they were 35 years old. Beckham is still 31, and he’s still physically very gifted.”

Beckham’s expected arrival is in mid-July when his contract with Real Madrid expires. The league has tailored the latter part of the season for the English star to play in every market.

“He’s not going to set the league on fire when he comes in,” Olsen said. “He’s not that type of player, but he’s going to be a great addition to that team, and he’s going to work hard and be a great leader for that team. Those are the guys we need in this league.”

Beckham is not the only star coming to the league this season. Claudio Reyna becomes the highest profile American to join the league. After a successful career overseas, the former American captain returns home to suit up with the New York Red Bulls. Joining Chicago in July is Mexican soccer idol Cuauhtemoc Blanco, while United has signed two talented Brazilians: forward Luciano Emilio and midfielder Fred, who already have had impressive games.

MLS standout Landon Donovan enters his seventh season in fine form after scoring five goals in a four-game stretch for the U.S. team. Freddy Adu, perhaps the league’s most well-known player until Beckham’s signing, has moved on from United to Real Salt Lake. There are also rave reviews about a New York Red Bull phenom — 17-year-old Josmer Altidore.

As for United, the club certainly looks like one of the favorites again, with newcomers Emilio and Fred joining the attacking flair of Jaime Moreno and 2006 MVP Christian Gomez. United looks in fine form after playing in four Champions’ Cup games recently.

“Certainly by gearing up the competitive juices, we are further ahead than some teams,” United technical director Dave Kasper said.

With Beckham dominating the news and Adu now in Utah, United may not be drawing the attention it once did, and that’s OK with the team.

“I guess we are under the radar,” Olsen said. “We always had the Freddy stuff. This team has always been about winning and the community, and if that doesn’t get us the press so be it.”

But the team remains confident.

“We have a team,” Kasper said. “We have a full roster of players that we are very happy with, and that’s our story.”

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