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End It Like Beckham: the close of an era in MLS

Two disparate things happened to me, in my guise as soccer fan, last Monday:  In the morning I received a confirmation email that my seats in the new Earthquakes stadium were assigned.  Later in the day I read the press release that Saturday’s MLS Cup Final would be David Beckham’s last game in an LA Galaxy jersey.  For me, these two events are significant and not entirely unconnected.

2008 saw the return of the Earthquakes to San Jose and I figured to get in line for season tickets so I could be sure of seeing David Beckham play for the first time.  As my former national squad captain I gave him the same type of begrudging respect I held for Dodger's manager Joe Torre – I despised the LA uniform, but respected the man who wore it.  Beckham arrived at the Galaxy for a few games in 2007, but 2008 became his first full season in MLS; mine too.

As a lapsed soccer fan, Beckham’s arrival gave me pause to reconsider MLS as a serious; professional soccer leagues, in a nation where previous iterations had struggled and failed.  Beckham focused my attention back on live, local soccer in San Jose, and while he was my invitation, the Earthquakes immediately won me over in the bleachers.  After my first game the action on the field and the smell of its grass together with the new friends I made in Buck Shaw resonated with me, and I quickly knew I was addicted.

Initially, the level of play Beckham encountered in MLS seemed to frustrate him - his Galaxy team mates appeared unsure of what to do with inch perfect crosses into space rather than directly to their feet.  Gradually, as formations were refined, strategies implemented, The Beckham Experiment worked as proof-of-principle that a star player (maybe two or three) can turn around a team, with ‘silverware’ and ‘profitability’ two words now associated with the LA Galaxy.

Six seasons later, as we rigorously dissect and evaluate Beckham’s contribution, his successful legacy in MLS has redirected the debate from the league’s viability to its growth.  MLS is healthier than ever, with continued expansion, record crowds and increasing TV coverage.  These are fascinating times for MLS as it strives to play among the mainstream sports.  Rumors swirl about an antipodean adventure for Beckham and whatever he decides it’s unlikely he will fade into oblivion.  Neither will MLS, but it will now have its Beckham Era.

For me, my interest in the San Jose Earthquakes was sparked by Beckham’s move to MLS.  My passion turned into a blog about my experience as a Quakes fan, and from there to Center Line Soccer, which allowed me to stand behind the corner flag during warm ups in the Western Conference semi-final.  As the players approached, I stepped back a little, and recognized as an England supporter I got a nod from the squad’s former captain –a circle was closed; I just didn’t realize it at the time.

Next year, Beckham will be gone and I shall miss him and be grateful for his contribution to MLS – his contribution to the Galaxy, not so much.  I’ll be back for the Earthquakes’ last season at Buck Shaw, dreaming of the comfy seats and cup holders of the new stadium, and with a continued aspiration to write a feature on the San Jose Earthquakes latest MLS Cup title.