The English megastar is departing after six MLS seasons to seek one last challenge — in France? England? Australia? — during an extraordinary career that has carried a shy schoolboy from east London to the heights of global fame, from the pinnacles of European soccer to the foothills of American pro sports.
He will leave behind a league that, since his arrival, has grown to 19 teams from 12, set an attendance record this year, sprouted new stadiums like spring tulips and attracted additional international stars — many of whom, like Beckham, are beyond their prime but worthy of an audience.
Many factors contributed to MLS’s accomplishments, but by raising soccer’s profile, Beckham helped push them along.
“We needed David Beckham in 2007 to help drive our credibility, to help grow our popularity and to show the world [MLS] was ready to support a [top] league at the levels that it is around the world,” Commissioner Don Garber said. “I don’t believe we are going to be hurting when David leaves. David helped to get us to a point and we are going to take it from that point and go even higher and not look back.”
Beckham exits a league that created a rule for him, one that allows teams to exceed narrow salary guidelines in order to sign big-ticket talent and begin competing for players in the international marketplace. (It’s officially called the Designated Player rule, but really it’s the Beckham Rule.)
Beckham, 37, heads off having helped the Galaxy become an international brand — not to the extent of his former clubs, Manchester United and Real Madrid, or, for that matter, most European heavyweights, but one that brings credibility to a league unfamiliar to few beyond U.S. shores.
He didn’t win the MVP trophy in any of his six seasons, but in terms of his value to the league, he was without peer. Dashing and charismatic, he drew mainstream attention to the league, particularly among female admirers.
He sold Pepsi with Sofia Vergara, modeled underwear on billboards, chatted with Jay Leno and David Letterman, attended a royal wedding and promoted the Olympics. He was a celebrity who just happened to play soccer – a sport that, in this country, has produced more female than male players with off-field appeal.
Beckham took it all in stride, knowing he was as important selling the sport as he were playing it.
“Even when I stop for gas in Carson and people come up to me and they know nothing about the game and they’re like, ‘We’re coming to your game this weekend,’ ” he said. “So we’ve got support and interest from all different kinds of people and people that wouldn’t usually come to a soccer game, so I think it’s a special place at the moment.”