As the bronze statue was unveiled outside LA Galaxy‘s stadium, it served as a permanent reminder, a symbol of not just David Beckham’s contribution to the football club, but how he almost single-handedly took a fledgling league and pastime, and promoted it into America’s popular culture and consciousness.
Beckham arrived at the MLS and LA Galaxy in 2007, and over the next six seasons made 98 appearances and scored 18 goals, helping to deliver back-to-back MLS titles in 2011 and 2012 respectively.
Football (or soccer as its known across the pond) in the United States had enjoyed a brief spell of exposure with global mega stars such as Pelé, George Best and Bobby Moore plying their trade with the likes of the New York Cosmos, LA Aztecs and San Antonio Thunder during the 70s and 80s, but the appeal had waned considerably.
Since 2006, MLS expanded from 12 teams to 20, with average attendance often exceeding that of NBA and NHL games. Clubs started investing in purpose-built soccer stadiums, rather than in the past where had to use the artificial turf in NFL grounds.
LA Galaxy and Beckham’s former coach, Bruce Arena, could see the effect the former United number seven was having on the league, telling Reuters in 2015: “The measurement is pretty clear, from 2007, on: how the league has grown with a number of franchises, how the attendance has grown, how the league has been recognised around the world.
“Locally the Galaxy have grown our brand. We have won championships, what more can you say?! Those are pretty impressive credentials for anyone.”
What the MLS got along with one of the best players in the world was the Beckham brand. He was a dream figurehead for anyone looking for promotion, as his brand is one few sports stars could rival or emulate. He became the star the MLS were looking for to take them to the next level.
Former teammate Landon Donovan described what LA Galaxy became to the man on the street after Beckham arrived, saying: “Before David came and someone walked down the street and you said, ‘I play for LA Galaxy’ and they would say ‘who’s that?’ After David left, if you say you play for LA Galaxy, people reply ‘that’s amazing!’
“The level of awareness he has brought has been priceless for us.”
MLS commissioner Don Garber, who has been in charge of the league since 1999, also acknowledged Beckham’s contribution to American soccer, claiming (via The Guardian): “No doubt our league wouldn’t be in the position it is in today if David didn’t make that decision (to come to the MLS).
“At that time we were a fledgling business and trying to figure out if soccer would make it in America. His signing told the world that major league soccer could be the league of choice.”
The love affair with Beckham, LA Galaxy and MLS was not a constant, however. Beckham endured the wrath of his own fans during his tenure, with many displeased by his loan move to Serie A giants Milan being extended, causing him to miss the start of the 2009 MLS season.
The fans’ ire increased when he said he wanted to stay in Milan to extend his England international career. There was also a growing voice of cynicism for Beckham and his wife Victoria for using their LA residency to ingratiate themselves with the Hollywood elite.
A number of stars including Tom Cruise, Katie Holmes and Arnold Schwarzenegger were in the stands to watch Beckham’s Galaxy debut, leading to criticism from teammates who questioned his commitment to the club.
Frustration also grew with Beckham’s catalogue of injuries which included an achilles tendon injury which left him sidelined for six months.
Now there is a new chapter in Beckham’s MLS story – franchise owner.
Whether his contribution to football in America is enhanced or diminished by his new role as a franchise co-owner remains to be seen. Inter Miami, as they are now known, will compete in the MLS next year.
What is clear, however, is that Beckham has always seen this as the next step, part of the plan to grow the game in the United States and promote their brand worldwide.
“My commitment to this league and country was always a lot more than on the field,” said Beckham.
“I want to grow the game and play a small part in growing this league and making it bigger. I think we have been successful but there is still a long way to go, but I think we are very happy with the growth over the past ten years.”
When Beckham gave his speech at the unveiling of his statue he said, via Sky Sports: “It makes me proud that there’s a statue that my children and children’s children can visit one day, and say they’re proud to see their dad and granddad.”
No doubt future generations of football fans in the United States will feel the same way.