- The Washington Times - Monday, July 16, 2007

David Beckham has landed in America to lift professional soccer out of its niche existence.

His will be no easy undertaking in a nation that already has a full sports menu.

Soccer is one of America’s leading participatory sports. Yet those figures do not become loyal spectators of Major League Soccer years after they have taken their last corner kick.

That remains the conundrum before professional soccer and now Beckham, the 32-year-old international celebrity who is seeking to win more than a few converts to the game.

It is not that Americans are uneducated or unsophisticated about the nuances of the game.

That is an old criticism that fails to acknowledge the robust health of soccer at the youth and high school levels in the United States. It is not that Americans don’t get it. It is just that all too many choose to spend their viewing dollars on football, basketball or baseball.

Beckham received a rousing introduction from the Los Angeles Galaxy on Friday, when the obligatory plaudits were dispensed and the swooning began in earnest from the 5,000 in attendance.

Beckham may not be the game’s savior in America. But he said he hopes to be the impetus that stokes the flames of interest.

He acknowledged the hold football and baseball have on America and conceded that he will not change that.

But he said, “I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t think I could make a difference.”

The league can expect to receive an initial burst of interest because of Beckham. That much is certain. The long-term effect is another question, dependent in part on whether the national press plays along.

His personal life may come to be more intriguing than his play as a midfielder, if America’s insatiable obsession with celebrities is any indication.

Beckham and his wife, Victoria, otherwise known as Posh Spice of the Spice Girls, count Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes as two of their dearest friends.

Coincidentally or not, the Beckhams have taken up residence in the nation’s entertainment capital, where star power is the key that opens all doors.

Beckham insists he has come to Los Angeles to do his part with the Galaxy and show that he can be one of the guys.

That could be something of a stretch on his part, given the $32.5 million he will earn the next five seasons in a league that routinely pays its players $50,000.

That $32.5 million puts in clear terms the gamble of professional soccer.

Beckham is not what he was as a player and certainly not expected to be what he is now near the end of his contract.

Will his charisma be enough to turn the curious into long-term supporters of the league?

Will it encourage other European stars to join the league?

That is a lot to envision from one transaction.

Soccer has made transcendent additions in the past, whether Pele or Freddy Adu, with momentary boosts that did not prove sustaining.

That is not a commentary on soccer.

The league, in its 11th season of operation, is a relative newcomer compared to Major League Baseball, the NFL and NBA.

Beckham will make his debut Saturday when the Galaxy meet Chelsea FC of the English Premier League in an exhibition match in Carson, Calif.

Beckham and his new teammates are not expected to be up to the level of Chelsea.

“I’ve always lived for challenges,” Beckham said. “I needed a new one.”

Beckham is taking on America, soccer’s last outpost of reluctance.

Beckham will find, as others before him have found, that America and soccer do not owe one another an apology.

It is not the game that is found wanting, although a 1-0 outcome does not inspire passion in everyone.

It is the deluge of sports offerings in America.

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