15 years ago today, David Beckham scored his greatest goal – a 30-yard free kick in stoppage time against Greece to send England to the World Cup. It was the final step in his evolution from man to demigod:
He was doing OK before this; famous young footballer with a smokin’ hot pop star wife. But this goal made him a transcendent phenomenon, not just in the world of soccer or sports, but in culture at large. To this day, David Beckham’s name rings bells from Chile to Pakistan and everywhere in between.
As an American soccer fan, I owe a lot to David Beckham. He raised the profile of MLS like no other player could. He made it cool to play in MLS, or at least cooler than it had been. He pissed his pants for us.
The league’s still got a long ways to go before it can be mentioned in the same breath as the big European leagues, but Beckham blazed a trail from Europe to America like Christopher fucking Columbus.
It’s him we can thank for the Pirlos, Lampards, Kakas, and Drogbas that headline MLS. But more importantly, it’s players like Sebastian Giovinco and Nico Lodeiro who will ultimately sustain the league. Players who are still in the prime of their careers, not washed up OGs looking to ride off into the sunset.
Beckham wasn’t a young man when he came to MLS; he was 32. He’d made his mark in Europe with Manchester United and Real Madrid.
David Beckham turned MLS from a novelty into a quasi-legitimate destination for top talent. Landon Donovan may be the league’s most accomplished player, but it was Beckham who took it mainstream.
As the American soccer market grows and the dollars continue to pour into MLS, the league will attract better, younger players. The United States’ long-term success on the global stage, that is to say in the World Cup, is tied to the strength of our domestic league.
That’s a fact Jurgen Klinsmann may be loathe to admit, but he should think of MLS like a tetanus shot: unpleasant at first, but necessary in the long run.
Central to the USMNT’s rise as a contender on the world scene is the development of youth players. And that’s not gonna come from U.S. Soccer. It’s gonna come from MLS clubs investing in youth academies, emulating what Barcelona and Real Madrid do so well.
It’s not sustainable to export the development of our brightest stars – the Christian Pulisics and Fabian Johnsons – to Germany.
Sending our very best players overseas is a necessary evil in the interim, but the United States will never be a major player on the world scene until we create robust infrastructure to develop youth players into top professionals.
And David Beckham was the first step that process. He made soccer cool in America.