Watching the MLS today you may be forgiven to think that it has always felt this way – big names, growing markets, etc. But David Beckham brought us here.
In 2006, the season before David Beckham arrived in MLS the average attendance was around 15,500 and the league finished just shy of three million fans across the league. Interest among casual US sports fans, even soccer fans, and the ever-powerful TV industry, was luke warm at best. 2007 changed that, and everything else we know today.
There is an onslaught of soccer on US television today, and right alongside the Premier League on NBCSN and international competitions, MLS has become a weekly fixture. This weekend Orlando City and Kaka host the Friday night match-up on ESPN at their new beautiful soccer-specific – home to the Purple Wall. They welcome in a red-hot expansion Atlanta United who boasts over 40,000 fans at their home matches and has three young, exciting DPs. Neither team was even a hint of a dream in 2006, nor would most of their star players have considered playing in the US.
The Galaxy Re-Born
After winning the 2005 MLS Cup, the LA Galaxy failed to qualify for the 2006 playoffs and saw their attendance drop by nearly 4,000 fans per game. Beckham’s arrival wouldn’t fix that in year one – or year two – but whether knowing it or not, the LA Galaxy were on their way to becoming a dynasty. For the MLS, it would be rapid-fire expansion across cities, players, television, and marketing deals.
His first match was a friendly against Chelsea, in which his every move was tracked, even if all of those moves should have been from the stands. David was still injured from his final season at Real Madrid, but he made an appearance anyway, knowing how much the moment meant to the club and the league.
That injury and the drama that surrounded him, the GM Alexi Lalas, and his head coaches would continue for another season and a half. By 2009, everything has clicked for the franchise. LA led the West three straight seasons and appeared in four MLS Cup Finals over a six year spanning – winning three times.
The Galaxy would go on to sign Robbie Keane, Giovani dos Santos, Steven Gerrard, Ashley Cole, and many more quality players. Yes, there was a team before David (even won 2 MLS titles), but not one that the world was interested in.
The rule and the move that changed American soccer
MLS changed its roster and salary rules in order to bring Beckham in. The Beckham rule, eventually gave way to it’s proper name – Designated Player rule. It opened up the bank for MLS teams, and while some were very slow to embrace the change, it transformed the league. The list is far too long (check it here) but the league (and we) eventually got to see Kaka, David Villa, Clint Dempsey, Sebastian Giovinco, Andrea Pirlo, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Didier Drogba, Robbie Keane, Theirry Henry and the list goes on.
Since 2006 the league has expanded from 12 teams to 22, with a plan to announce team 28 by the end of next year. Overall attendance has more than doubled, while average per match nearly hit 22k last season – 9th best in the world.
Some fans don’t like Beckham or the Galaxy, either due to their success over that period or the feeling that the MLS bent the rules too often for them. However, it was often those expansions of the limits that got us to where we are today. If you enjoy MLS or the American soccer wave that has occurred over the past decade, then you should remember to thank both of those parties. It’ll be a great feat for one individual to ever change the league that dramatic again.