Beckham's Miami team has questions to answer before it can be an MLS hit
After four years of false dawns, Major League Soccer is finally headed to Miami.
Former England international and LA Galaxy midfielder David Beckham, whose MLS contract allowed him to buy a future expansion team at a discounted rate, stood proudly next to commissioner Don Garber on Monday as the city was granted the league's 25th franchise.
However, questions remain, and despite the triumphant air of Monday afternoon's announcement, there are more than a few of them.
Is everything actually in place?
The fact that MLS is taking the long-awaited step of officially awarding Miami an expansion bid hints that everything is cut and dried. Behind the scenes, though, there are loose ends.
Having previously failed to pin down stadium plans at the waterfront and in Little Havana, the Beckham-led ownership group honed in on the Overtown neighborhood north of downtown. The problem is, few residents seem happy about it.
There is the ongoing legal challenge of Miami-Dade County's pending sale of the three acres of land on which a 25,000-seat stadium is supposed to eventually rise. Neighborhood groups have opposed the idea from the start, claiming that an area with virtually no existing parking facilities will cause too much disruption -- and fears that longtime Overtown residents could get priced out.
Again, indications are that the trickiest hurdles have been cleared. But there is enough uncertainty still hovering in the background to give close observers pause.
What will be unique about the club's brand?
It is self-evident what initially attracted Beckham to Miami. Despite having no natural ties to the area -- and making himself scarcer than might be expected of a future local sports owner -- superficially, at least, the soccer player whose celebrity often eclipsed his free kick skills seems at home near South Beach. When Beckham first unveiled his intention to bring MLS to Miami in 2014, the league was crying out for some star power, some sexiness, anything to attract even a modicum of casual interest.
The landscape has changed. Plenty of work is still to be done to win over mainstream sports fans, but Miami won't immediately become the coolest kid on the block by default.
Atlanta United was by every metric a smashing success last year as an expansion team: becoming the first club to top Seattle's for-so-long-untouchable attendance records. Los Angeles FC, which will make its intro in a few months, is already positioning itself as what Beckham's project from the beginning purported itself to be: glitz and glamour in a metropolis that can attract globally relevant stars.
That being the case, what does team No. 25 have to offer that we haven't seen already?
What of Miami FC?
Riccardo Silva, co-owner of the North American Soccer League club that already calls the city home, has a history of rattling cages at MLS HQ. Silva inspired headlines all over America last July by offering $4 billion to take control of the league's TV and media rights on the condition that MLS adopted a promotion-relegation system.
Never mind that Silva's offer was all but guaranteed to be dismissed out of hand -- or his obvious self-interest. If nothing else, he got people talking. Which is to say that Miami FC is unlikely to sit quietly in the corner while Beckham's team prepares to bring the top flight to South Florida.
The 2018 NASL season won't begin until August, if it opens at all. The league moved from a spring to fall start supposedly to better align itself with the international calendar -- and to give itself more time to scramble together more than the six teams that currently call it home.
The NASL's future is very much in question. If it survives, though -- even, perhaps, if it does not -- expect Silva to pull a few more tricks from up his sleeve.
What level of star power can Beckham's team realistically attract?
Atlanta shifted the paradigm. Instead of following the well-worn path of signing some over-the-hill European veteran to coax fans into seats, United bet big that winning, attractive soccer could be a draw itself.
Atlanta, which just completed the most expensive transfer in MLS history by adding 18-year-old playmaker Ezequiel Barco from Argentinean side Independiente for a reported fee of $15 million, added three designated players who were all in their early 20s and all relatively unknown in the U.S. before their arrival. Miguel Almiron, Josef Martinez and Hector Villalba proceeded to set the league alight in front of packed houses.
LAFC looks to be following a similar model, adding in-his-prime Mexico international Carlos Vela instead of, say, 36-year-old Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who is currently being linked with the crosstown rival Galaxy.
It will be interesting to see how Miami plays it. Because of his own background and how long it took this project to get off the ground, Beckham might feel compelled to make a splash even at the expense of on-field quality. Or, might his club be the one that finally attracts a genuine superstar who is still at the top of his game to Major League Soccer?
How will it go about building authentic connections?
Toronto FC and the Sounders provided the blueprint that every successful MLS expansion club since has copied at least some elements from. Build a stadium close to the city center; treat the "Major League" part of MLS as an imperative rather than emptily aspirational; encourage supporter culture and cultivate authentic ties from the grassroots up.
The last part could prove especially vital to Miami's long-term viability. The city is famous for its vibrant Latino community, a demographic MLS has struggled to tap into for a variety of reasons -- some of which should be blamed on the league itself. Chivas USA was the clumsiest failed overture, but not the only one. Houston, for example, has a downtown stadium and a fun, Central American-heavy, young core but still struggles for attendance figures.
It's up to Miami to market itself in a way that actually connects with people, and doesn't just pander to the diverse groups that call the region home. That will be one of many trends to watch in the coming months and years before Beckham's much-mooted club finally makes its debut.
Matt Pentz is a Seattle-based soccer reporter covering primarily the Sounders, Timbers and Whitecaps. Follow him on Twitter @mattpentz.