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Was Beckham's magic behind the MLS's success?

Almost four years ago, David Beckham sat down in a private box at the Home Depot Center, home turf of the Los Angeles Galaxy, for a short, face-to-face chat. He was unshaven, artfully unkempt (no photos, please), he had his sore ankle propped up on a chair and was chowing down on a submarine sandwich.

The next day, one of the planet's most famous faces was to make his much-anticipated Major League Soccer debut in an exhibition match against Chelsea, opening a new chapter for the game in North America, cast as its latest, flashiest messenger, called upon to spread the good news.

The value of his brand, was enormous, even among those who had never seen him play, Beckham having long entered the world of pure, un-hyphenated celebrity. And contrary to what some had suggested when his signing with the Galaxy was announced six months earlier, he was hardly over-the-hill on the pitch.

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In his last match before the game in L.A., Beckham had celebrated with his teammates at the Bernabeu after helping Real Madrid win la Liga. Still to come were more caps with England, and two stints on loan to AC Milan. But for a torn Achilles tendon, Beckham would have played in his fourth World Cup last summer.

Not washed up, massively recognizable, and under the brightest of spotlights in Southern California: In the grand plan to accelerate MLS's progress in the United States, getting Beckham was the masterstroke.

"Without a doubt this is, potentially, could be, a huge thing," he said that day.

Tuesday afternoon, Beckham met briefly with a small assemblage of Toronto media folk before playing his first and perhaps only competitive match at BMO Field on Wednesday night against Toronto FC. (He sat out his first visit with the Galaxy because he didn't want to test his gimpy ankle on what was then artificial turf, though he did take a turn in when the MLS All Stars played an exhibition match against West Ham United there in 2008.)

His contract is up at the end of this season, and approaching his 36th birthday, his future in MLS or anywhere else remains very much up in the air. Beckham makes no secret of the fact that he would love to play for his country again, and would welcome an opportunity in Europe. Barring that, he could also take one last spin around MLS.

"There's a chance [of staying with the Galaxy]" he said. "I haven't made any decision about what I'm going to do after this year. I feel good in games. I feel as though I'm performing well….I still love the game like I did when I was 21 years old, and I still feel fit."

But at this stage, the bigger question, at least on this side of the Atlantic, is his legacy? Did the big gamble pay off?

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There has been no miraculous transformation. Soccer has not displaced any of the traditionally dominant North American sports. But by the same token, soccer interest and soccer literacy - expressed not just through MLS, but through all of the international content now available via television - has never been higher here.

There are still plenty of empty seats in many MLS stadiums, even the small, purpose-built parks which are perfect for the game's needs, television ratings are minuscule for the domestic game, and only one other big name European player - Thierry Henry - has followed in Beckham's footsteps.

But since Beckham's arrival, MLS has added teams in Philadelphia, Seattle, Portland and Vancouver, which all seem extraordinarily healthy, with another in Montreal on the way, and in the process franchise values have soared.

"The way the league is going and the way franchises are coming into the league - you look at things like that and you say, yeah, it has improved in the last few years."

Could that have happened without him? Was all of the hype worth the huge price paid by the league, and by sponsors, to get him here?

Answer that question with another question: If he hadn't come, would there even be a conversation?

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About the Author
Sports columnist

Hamilton-born Stephen Brunt started at The Globe as an arts intern in 1982, after attending journalism school at the University of Western Ontario. He then worked in news, covering the 1984 election, and began to write for the sports section in 1985. His 1988 series on negligence and corruption in boxing won him the Michener award for public service journalism. More

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