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Beckham's biggest pitch won't be the soccer field

If the intent was to sell golf to a country lukewarm to the notion, Tiger Woods would be the man for the job. If the idea was to extend the reach of basketball to unfamiliar places, Michael Jordan has the face that would lend the mission instant credibility.

It was with a keen understanding of what defines a global sports ambassador that Major League Soccer made the splash heard round the world Friday, signing English midfielder David Beckham to a five-year contract with the Los Angeles Galaxy, the potential value approximating one quarter of a billion dollars. That the news was greeted with indifference outside small pockets of the largest U.S. cities capsulizes soccer's meager national standing as a spectator sport and the extent of the challenge awaiting the game's most recognizable figure.

Let's be clear about this. What Beckham does on the field during his time here will be secondary, at best, to the attention he draws to the game and MLS simply by being David Beckham, modern-day Renaissance man, corporate spokesperson, media magnet.

MLS officials offered words to the contrary throughout a Friday conference call, insisting that Beckham was lured first and foremost because of the immensity of his skills. Former U.S. national defender Alexei Lalas, the Galaxy general manager, went as far as to say that Beckham remains a player in his prime, a long reach considering his removal from the English national team and his diminished standing over his last two seasons with the global Goliath of Real Madrid.

Truth is, age has distanced Beckham from inclusion among the world's global elite, if he was ever granted membership to begin with, which is subject to debate. He has somehow during his career acquired status that would seem to exceed his ability, making him not unlike his good friend, actor Tom Cruise.

Granted, Beckham remains pre-eminent off the free kick, as evidenced by the hyperbolic 30-yard blast he sent over the wall and into the lower corner against Ecuador during World Cup 2006. There's no exaggeration within the movie title, "Bend It Like Beckham." But the proof of his decline is in the actions of England and Real Madrid, which despite his international popularity decided it was time to move on.

So the question becomes: Can a lesser form of Beckham do for U.S. soccer what an ascending Woods did for golf, elevating it from niche sport to a national fascination? And how is it that Beckham might succeed where the incomparable Pele failed three decades ago after joining the New York Cosmos of the now-defunct North American Soccer League? MLS officials have their ideas.

"The country is so totally different today, the sport is so totally different today, than it was back in the days of the North American Soccer League," said Don Garber, MLS commissioner. "You could say that everything we've done is with the backdrop of their failure and trying to make decisions to ensure that that doesn't happen with Major League Soccer."

Tim Leiweke, president of AEG, which operates the Galaxy, concurred. He noted that MLS is on stronger financial footing than was the NASL, has built soccer-specific stadiums, made inroads on TV. He implied that signing a player of Beckham's stature was a logical next step instead of a grab for validation.

"There's not an expectation that David Beckham single-handedly makes the league relevant because the fact is the league is relevant," Leiweke said. "And there is not an expectation David Beckham single-handedly takes us to the NFL level. I think our expectations are reasonable. I think the biggest impact here is that David will make us more relevant, not just in this country but in particular internationally. More people will follow our games, follow our teams and follow our play than in the past."

MLS doubtless will realize immediate benefits from Beckham's signing. Uncertain is how pronounced those benefits will be. The country is overrun with soccer-playing children, some of whom attend Beckham's academy outside Los Angeles. What it continues to lack are soccer-minded adults.

"Soccer is huge all around the world apart from America; that's where I want to make a difference with the kids," Beckham said. "Soccer in America is the biggest-played sport up to a certain age. That's where I want to take it to another level."

One can't help but wonder if the possibility even exists.

e-mail: bdicesare@buffnews.com

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