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Goal Rush: MLS Preview

North America remains one of the largest economic blocks yet to fully embrace football and represents a potential elephants graveyard of riches if the game could “crack America”. The Tactics Truck looks ahead to First Kick on 29th March and assesses the MLS prospects and it potential for growth.

The easiest thing for a European writing about American Soccer is to write about Beckham. So that's where I'll start. Understandably, his presence has measurably increased the profile of MLS despite his injury ravaged half season in 2007. This year, with a full pre-season behind him, Beckham will be expected to help deliver glory for Galaxy on the pitch. In addition, his star quality is supposed to increase the league's profile and put money in the bank: Galaxy's, MLS', ESPN's and his own.

The league's development over the last decade has not been without its problems but (and at the risk of over-generalising) it has been fairly constant. In fact, the biggest mistake a European could make is to assume that Beckham is there just to help boost MLS. In fact MLS is probably as helpful to Beckham's ambitions as Beckham's is to theirs, perhaps more so.

Beckham's management firm 19 are a large multimedia entertainment company. The man in charge, Simon Fuller, was behind the whole Pop Idol/American Idol thing that has raked in huge audiences for broadcasters. He is also the manager of the Spice Girls. For Fuller and the Beckhams, moving stateside is very much part of their broader ambitions. Should Beckham repeat Pele’s achievements in the late 70's with the Cosmos and deliver glory for the Galaxy then he will have the platform he needs to launch his post-football career.

The benefits for the MLS are more straightforward. More bums on seats, increased market share and more money for foreign TV deals. In the UK two broadcasters are in the frame for TV rights, one of which may even carry some games live. This has never happened before in the UK. The cost of the rights doesn't amount to a hill of beans compared to European league broadcast rights but I understand that it is a significant improvement from last year.

There is also a possibility that, in the future, MLS may be just the thing to wile away those long summer evenings during the close season in Europe. Advertisers pay good money for the football demographic and commercial broadcasters would love to supply a quality summer football to distract European audiences with. The trouble with that is two fold:

Firstly, MLS has a reputation for poor quality football by comparison to the European leagues and, right now, very few people actually watch it. In the UK Channel 5 have been broadcasting delayed coverage of MLS pretty much since it began to very small audiences, even during peak hours. David Beckham’s Soccer USA ran in a terrestrial 7pm slot and it died on its arse. Secondly, there is the time difference problem.

So, as far as European broadcaster is concerned, in order for MLS to be worth paying big money for, it needs more marquee players like Beckham to raise the standard of play and to adjust its kick off times to suit European audiences. This runs the risk of alienating the league’s domestic support and financially destabilising the franchises with inflated wages. Hardly worth it really and yet, the idea of never-ending football remains a powerful one and the huge potential of a successful North American soccer league should have smart TV executives keeping their eye on MLS’ progress. Perhaps then, Beckham's recruitment could be seen less as an attempt to take a short cut to the big time and more of an incremental step in raising the leagues profile, albeit an expensive step.

Indeed, one could argue that MLS was carrying on just fine before Beckham turned up. After all, the League's expansion plans were well underway before he arrived. The reconciliation of San Jose, the row over ticket allocations for away supporters and the creation of a franchise in Philly thanks, in large part to the Sons Of Ben (a triumph for supporter activism) demonstrates that there is a vibrant football culture in America and that MLS behaves just like any other football league. They can be erratic, inconsistent, stupid, short sighted, greedy and craven, sometimes all at once. Believe it or not, these are the characteristics of a mature football league. One to be infuriated by but also one to have some perverse affection for, and certainly one that does not need expensive gimmicks, no matter how good looking they are. The Tactics Truck will follow the new season with interest.

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