Seriously, what's the big deal? We were told all along that David Beckham was going to be playing for a super club this year, it just happens to be on another continent. So, Alexi Lalas was a little off -- and you all laughed at him.
When the worst-kept secret in soccer was confirmed on Thursday, that David Beckham has inked a two-month loan deal with Italian club AC Milan, I can't help but wonder what all the fuss is about. The world's most recognizable player, in an effort to stay sharp and fit for his chances with the England squad, will suit up for a dozen or so games in San Siro and then head back to Planet Hollywood. With the amount of hand-wringing and hair pulling going on, you'd think Beckham was gone for good.
It isn't like he'll by lying out on the beach of St. Tropez getting a tan; he'll be playing for one of the most storied clubs in the world. He'll come back fit, sharp and hopefully healthy. There is precedent, after all: Eric Wynalda went on loan to Mexican club Leon following the 1999 MLS season. Simply put, Beckham wants to stay sharp and keep his strong chances with his national team alive.
England doesn't play again till a home fixture versus the Ukraine on April 1, but it is clear that Beckham wants to figure prominently into the plans for that game and beyond. Sitting comfortable in UEFA Group 6 with 12 points off of four matches, England looks primed for a fourth consecutive World Cup. Beckham, who will be 35 when the tournament kicks off in South Africa in 2010, didn't figure to be in the national team picture after the last World Cup. This exclusion would come despite the fact that he was arguably the best and most consistent player on the English team in 2006.
His move to MLS last year seemingly doomed Beckham's international career, but a sputtering performance by England in failing to qualify for Euro 2008 led new England boss Fabio Capello to look across the Atlantic at Beckham. It turns out that No. 23 is in form despite the woeful play of his Galaxy team. Now, Beckham has reclaimed his place in the England squad despite Los Angeles having missed the playoffs for a third straight season, a club record. It is a testament to just how elevated his play remains.
Now, more then ever, MLS needs David Beckham. When he first arrived, record crowds filled stadiums across the league; Year 2 of Beckham-mania showed strong attendance bounces, although not nearly as high as in 2007. If Beckham can continue to make a mark with England en route to his fourth career World Cup, then MLS and American soccer can and will benefit. Seeing Beckham at the sport's most highly watched event could only be a plus for a league still in search of an identity. It will also keep him a marquee draw and headline grabber.
The league wasn't counting on Beckham still having an international career or adding to his cap total when he made the trans-Atlantic trip last summer. Now, fans of the league and the Galaxy are worried about what Beckham's loan deal to Milan will mean to the team when it begins preparing for the 2009 season. That is a shortsighted way to look at things.
Having Major League Soccer's premier player at the World Cup lands instant credibility for a league that in 2010 will be celebrating its 15th anniversary. There is no better way -- I repeat -- no better way to embrace where it has been and where it is going then for MLS to have David Beckham in the World Cup. And we're sitting here worried about Beckham missing a few preseason games? With all due respect to the Carolina Challenge Cup or whatever plans Bruce Arena has for his Galaxy to get primed for the season, it all pales in comparison to the significance of Becks in South Africa. Think big picture here. Think marketing. Think sustained interest.
Plus, if Beckham goes to the Serie A and performs well, what does that say about MLS? Short of players from the CONCACAF region, just how many truly international stars are in MLS and still in their prime? Yes, there are a few, but even the top American players such as a Freddy Adu or Jozy Altidore continue to look overseas for options to play at the highest level. If our beloved (or sneered upon) Beckham can go over to Italy and perform crisp, clean soccer, it sends a worldwide message that no amount of victories in international club friendlies can accomplish.
Beckham's play in Serie A, if it is at a high level, can only enhance the reputation of MLS globally. It would help counter myths that say MLS is a retirement league, a place where footballers can go for one last paycheck. MLS was counting on raking in some serious cash when Beckham signed his five-year deal last year, but now the opportunity to capitalize on Beckham has become even bigger than they imagined. It extends from the jingle of the cash register to the playing field. We'll all be watching.
And maybe he can whisper a sweet nothing in the ears of Milan teammates Ronaldinho and Andrei Shevchenko while he's at it. Just tell them how lovely Columbus or Kansas City is this time of year. Come on Becks, it's worth a try.
Kristian R. Dyer is a freelance writer for ESPNsoccernet. He is the associate editor of Blitz magazine and also writes for the New York City daily paper METRO. He can be reached for comment at KristianRDyer@yahoo.com.