Again with the Beckham debacle. I'd really prefer to go against the grain, talk about something else, and just move on with the business of soccer in this country. But Beckham's time with the Galaxy, be it finished or not, makes his ongoing saga a relevant American soccer story.
This time, it's a throw away quote taken from an interview in which Becks supposedly declared his desire to stay with Milan (link), that has my thinking wheels turning.
"Former England captain Becks, 33, also told of his 'frustration' at playing for LA Galaxy in a league that was '10 years behind” European standards.'
Did you catch that part about MLS being "10 years behind" European standards? That's the part that's got me all riled up: not because I think it's a incorrect statement, but because I think Signore Beckham may be giving our little league more credit that it might actually deserve.
I know ten years is a long time. A lot can happen in ten years. Technology, language, fashion, music, etc. all change drastically over the course of a decade's time. Ten years ago, the height of cool was a pager on vibrate and a ride with the windows down and "My Name Is" blasting from the speakers. Yes, ten years can be a very long time.
But is it really? Is it a long time when what we are talking about is a league with thirteen years of competition being compared to history-rich institutions like Serie A, La Liga, and the EPL? If Beckham meant what he said, and he truly believes that MLS is only ten years behind Europe, then let me be the first to say "bravo" to Mr. Garber and company. The litany of handicaps that hold MLS back from competing financially, even with leagues in this corner of the world, make the "10 years behind" comment a compliment rather than a slight. While those of us invested in American soccer and the success of our domestic league are less concerned about comparisons than we are with achievements on the field and the relative health of the game, it would be incorrect to say that we don't care. We do, we just don't believe it's as important an issue as some (Euro snob alert).
Be it compliment or contempt, the soundness of Beckham's assessment of MLS is worth analyzing. There are no hard statistics that will prove or disprove it; there is no tangible, concrete, beyond-a-doubt reasoning that would hold up to any logical scrutiny. The statement belongs to the unprovable, and is a subjective appraisal that is simply one man's opinion. But what if we extrapolate Beckham's comment to it's logical end? Will MLS, come 2019, be on par with the top-flight European football of today? Again, impossible to know. It's difficult for me to believe, however, that Major League Soccer and the sport in the United States will have made enough progress, both in youth development and through bringing in foreign players, to resemble what we see today in the world's most competitive leagues. The uphill battle to garner public attention will continue to hamstring large scale quality improvement efforts for the foreseeable future.
Ten years in the sports world is barely enough to make a career. Very little changes in the way a game is played over the course of that time, and the quality of talent shifts only slightly with better scouting and improved development programs. It can take much longer to significantly impact the product on the field. Soccer's place in the United States sports hierarchy may change for the better in the next ten years, but unless significant funds are suddenly available for teams to drastically increase their payrolls, scouting networks, and youth programs, the quality of play will remain relatively stagnant. While I hope MLS budgets will double or triple (or more) by 2019, I can't see the type of money necessary to bring MLS 2019 to the level of Serie A 2009 just falling out of the sky.
That's not to say it's impossible. Far from it actually. A couple of proverbial dominoes falling in favor of soccer in America could change everything, and make Beckham's statement a potentially prophetic one. If MLS reaches standards in ten years that can even remotely compare to those in the European leagues in which David Beckham has plied his trade, then I'm excited for the future. Whether you believe Beckham was being harsh, politely lenient, or brutally honest, we should take his comments as evidence that MLS is moving in the right direction.
Just as a sidebar, I think it's worth mentioning that Beckham rarely misspeaks, or says something he has not thought over carefully; this means that he probably believed the "10 years behind" comment to be a compliment to MLS.