Slow-growing MLS rises a little higher

Robbie Keane, left, and David Beckham have helped take MLS to the next level in terms of recognition. Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

CARSON, Calif. -- This is what Philip Anschutz must have had in mind as he dipped into his deep pockets time after time over the last 15 years and continuously wrote blank check after blank check to a sport most in this country couldn’t have cared less about and specifically to a team no one in Los Angeles knew much about.

On a cold November night that was far more reminiscent of London than Los Angeles, it wasn’t just the scarves and chants that evoked images of our neighbors across the pond. Major League Soccer may never be confused with the top-flight leagues in Europe but when the highlights of the Los Angeles Galaxy’s 3-1 win over Real Salt Lake in the Western Conference final are shown abroad, the names of the high-priced players will be just as impressive as their play Sunday night.

There was David Beckham’s perfectly placed cross that was headed home by Mike Magee, who has quickly become Beckham’s favorite target on set pieces. There was Robbie Keane’s ankle-breaking run and shot past the outstretched arms Nick Rimando. And there was, of course, Landon Donovan’s powerful penalty kick into the back of the net to start it all off in the first half.

As the trio celebrated the team’s second Western Conference title in three years, AEG president and CEO Tim Leiweke put on a championship hat, looked at the 20,000 confetti-soaked fans at the Home Depot Center and said, “They thought this sport would never make it here.”

Not only has the sport made it here; it is beginning to thrive here. A recent report placed the average attendance of MLS games this past season (17,872) slightly ahead of the average attendance at NBA games (17,319) and NHL games (17,126) thanks in large part to the 10 soccer-specific stadiums that have been built for MLS teams since 1999. Fans are not just coming out to games but supporters in Seattle, Portland, Toronto, Vancouver and Philadelphia would rival those in any league when it comes to sheer loyalty and fanaticism.

The play on the field and the fervor in the stands is something Beckham had hoped to see when he signed a five-year deal with the Galaxy back in 2007. When he first arrived in Los Angeles and would go back to Europe for games or other obligations, he admits he would hear the snickers when they would talk about the league. That has slowly changed as international players such as Keane, Thierry Henry, Rafael Marquez and Juan Pablo Angel have not only come signed with the league but have done so with plenty left in the tank.

“This league is being noticed now around the world,” Beckham said. “That’s important. That’s important for the game in this country and important for the game around the world that this league gets noticed. We’re starting to get that now and we’re enjoying that. They’re taking us seriously now.”

How to incorporate players such as Beckham and Keane has always been the biggest question for the young league and the toughest balance to strike. How do you bring in familiar European players without becoming what the ill-fated North American Soccer League was, which was essentially a retirement home for over-the-hill overseas players.

The key was to slowly build the league and mix in well-known players gradually, while never losing sight of the league’s goal to build and nurture home-grown players and fans. Big-name players weren’t just signed to sell tickets but to help develop younger players who had once only watched these players on television.

This is evident now in the relationship between Beckham and 27-year-old forward Magee. Beckham has connected with Magee for three goals in the last three playoff games and Beckham’s smile gets bigger by the game when he’s asked about his young teammate.

“He’s on fire,” Beckham said. “Mike’s dad said to me the other night, ‘You keep finding his head,’ and he’s right. Hopefully it continues. We’ve got one more game to go. Mikey knows how to get into position and to the right place at the right time and he’s done that so far.”

Beckham is like Magic Johnson with the ball in space. He finds players off set pieces the way Johnson found teammates on a fast break and no one knows that better than Magee right now.

“Even when he’s not looking at you, you know if you have time and space you’re going to score a goal,” Magee said. “Whenever he gets it I try to get in front of the goal.”

Beckham didn’t touch the Western Conference championship hats and shirts handed out after the game as Bill Withers’ “Lovely Day” blared in the locker room. His mindset was similar to the phrase written on the dry-erase board, “One more.” He gave the hats and shirts to his three sons as he took a sip of beer with his teammates and changed into his suit.

The MLS Cup in two weeks could prove to be Beckham’s final game in the States before he goes back to Europe to finish his career. If it is, he wants to leave here having accomplished his final goal, which is to win a title for the Galaxy. As he looks at the talented players in the locker room and the sold-out crowds he’s now playing in front of, he believes he has accomplished most of the other goals he had set for himself five years ago when he first arrived in Los Angeles.

“I’ve met those goals off the field, but I just haven’t won a championship for the Galaxy which is one of the biggest reasons I came to play in the MLS. I want to be successful for this team and this organization,” Beckham said. “Many people have said for years that I go to places as a brand move. I go to places because I want to be successful as a soccer player. That’s it; it’s as simple as that. I want to be successful wherever I go. I’m 36 years old and I’m still enjoying playing soccer.”

Arash Markazi is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.