It is hard to tell if attitudes towards soccer are changing or not. The game, obviously known more widely as football, has been the subject of ridicule and dismissal both in and out of America for a number of years. On the surface, it may look like that it hasn’t developed in any way at all, but taking a closer look will show just how much it has progressed, in every sense, over recent years.
At grassroots level, in schools and colleges, soccer is generally dwarfed by the likes of basketball and American football amongst males. Females tend to turn to soccer, so it is no surprise that the Women’s National Team have excelled in tournaments, cementing themselves as the best team in the world on a regular basis. The United States, though, has a special fascination with the concept of fame, and as football has become a centrepiece in wider society, naturally it has become more popular overall. More factors must be taken into consideration, too, and while America still enjoys more success in other sports, the aim is certainly to close the gap.
What could be called a new wave of interest can probably be traced back to 2007, when Major League Soccer, the nation’s primary division which was at the time only in its 14th year of existence, made a major breakthrough. David Beckham’s switch to LA Galaxy from Real Madrid, aged just 32, was met with scepticism from the masses.
Having lost the England captaincy a year prior, he was accused of giving up on his career, chasing a huge paycheque and settling for an early retirement. His outgoing boss at the Santiago Bernabeu, Fabio Capello, didn’t hide his disapproval after the move became apparent midway through the previous campaign and he ostracised Beckham from his squad. Nothing but hard work was ever on the winger’s mind, though, and he battled his way back into Capello’s plans. Los Blancos went on to win a 30th LaLiga title, toppling Barcelona in remarkable circumstances.
Fresh from proving doubters wrong in Spain, Beckham headed Stateside. Arguably the world’s most well known sportsman, for exploits on and off the pitch, he fitted the bill as the new face of soccer, the man to reinvigorate the sport. That, more than anything else, was his aim.
There were ups and downs during his stint, which ended six months prior to his retirement in 2013, but there is little doubt he succeeded with his plan to popularise the game. Aside from returning to Europe with AC Milan and later Paris Saint-Germain, Beckham was fully committed to the project. Soccer has continued to grow, too, and it runs deeper than just MLS, with more franchises being founded. It was always Beckham’s long-term goal to own a club himself.
The United States’ run to the last 16 of the 2014 World Cup served as proof that more talented American players have emerged. Other big name stars from abroad have found MLS an interesting proposition, following in Beckham’s footsteps. Didier Drogba is playing for Montreal Impact, while Kaka, David Villa and Andrea Pirlo spearhead the most recent additions to the league, Orlando City SC and New York City FC, respectively.
With almost every star who has crossed the Atlantic past their peak years and over the age of 30, it would be easy to return to the early retirement argument, but it is all about having the right attitude. Lesser-known players who are talented in their own right, such as Italian Sebastian Giovinco and former Barcelona youth product Giovani Dos Santos, are thriving.
Beckham’s former England teammates, Chelsea legend Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard, Liverpool’s homegrown hero, were let go by New York City and LA Galaxy recently, having failed to live up to the expectations their legendary status promised. Robbie Keane, who has also left Los Angeles, didn’t enjoy the same recognition, but arguably faired better overall.
It wasn’t that either Gerrard, who has now retired from the game, or Lampard performed particularly badly, with the latter maintaining a typically impressive goalscoring record of 15 in 29 games. But they fell down by failing to make a connection with the fans similar to Beckham, while the likes of Kaka and Villa appear to have embraced the whole experience better. Lampard’s decision to extend a loan spell with Manchester City, New York’s sister club, meaning he had to wait a year after signing in 2014 to make his debut, showed immediately where his heart lay, while injuries took their toll as age caught up with him.
Gerrard, too, never looked truly comfortable with his new life. After leaving Anfield in 2015, he constantly put limitations on his time in Hollywood, refusing to commit beyond his contract. Although there can be no question the 36-year-old put everything into his MLS career, he didn’t go into it with the same level of enthusiasm as Beckham.
Whether either player would have stayed if offered new terms is up for debate, but neither of their clubs were particularly keen to retain them. Their legacies at Chelsea and Liverpool gave them a reputation that bordered on royalty, and to some casual onlookers, that may have been enough to succeed. Years ago, the likes of George Best, Pele and Johan Cruyff made the best of their latter years in America, but the game has moved on since.
Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard are undoubtedly footballing greats, but their failure to appreciate and understand the requirements of Major League Soccer cost them dear. David Beckham started the ball rolling for this modern era, but he also set the bar for success. Soccer is growing in the United States, it is no longer a place to sunbathe and people need to realise that.
About the author – Harry De Cosemo
Harry is a European football writer specialising in English, Spanish and Italian football. He has worded for a number of publications including MARCA in English, uMAXit football, FourFourTwo and The Press Association.