SPORTS

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May 16, 2003

U.S. no place for David Beckham

All of a sudden, there's talk about David Beckham coming to America. Not just for Manchester United's summer tour of the States in the next few months, but perhaps a permanent move for Beckham from industrial Manchester to the glitz of Los Angeles or the cool of New York City. Some also say that Man United's tour of the States will be a "huge boost" to soccer in the U.S.

Don't believe any of it.

Soccer, as has been the case for decades, will grow in this country through small steps, not large lunges. Man United will make a big splash for a couple months this summer and then fade. The interest just isn't there in the States to sustain a big time world class soccer league.

Beckham has no business coming to the U.S. at this point. He is at the peak of his powers, and mega-clubs across the world would pay top dollar to have him bend his free kicks in their stadiums. Still, I have my doubts about Beckham as a complete player--he lacks pace, and too much of his ability is centered around the inside of his right foot. Yet like other superstars, he commands attention. He undoubtedly still has a lot to accomplish at the club level and, even more so, on the international level.

At Manchester United, it seems like the Red Devils and Sir Alex Ferguson have gone about as far as they can go with this current group of players. Roy Keane is aging and unable to match his previous levels of fervor. United has not looked completely whole ever since Juan Sebastien Veron came in from Italy. Ruud Van Nistelrooy has been a pleasure to watch and he's an unbelievable scoring machine, but he needs help up front. United does not have a great forward pairing, and that hurts them.

Moreover, United won the Premiership this year not only because of its solid play and considerable skill, but also because other teams collapsed. Arsenal faded down the stretch, and the Gunners, as they have in years past, lacked the mettle and determination that mark true sports dynasties. Outside of Patrick Vieira, Arsenal does not seem to have players that bubble with resiliency and rise to meet the challenge. Arsenal has players with unbounded skill and world-class finesse, but with a penchant for foul play and sometimes straight cheating (see Ashley Cole), Arsenal gives new meaning to the term inconsistency. The Red Devils bounce back against any obstacle and, given another 20 minutes of play against Real Madrid, could have actually been playing for the Champions League trophy this year. Champions close out teams and finish seasons with passion and hunger. Arsenal whimpered at the end of the 2002-2003 campaign, once again taking a frustrating second in the league race.

United had a good run this year, with one trophy in the bag, but with their current crop of players, next year does not look bright. Ryan Giggs stands as their most dynamic midfielder, and Paul Scholes packs quite a punch, but besides these two and Van Nistelrooy, the Red Devils have lots of room for change. They could use another workhorse midfielder, a striking partner for their isolated Dutchman, and a defense that favors substance over the unsubstantiated cost of players like Rio Ferdinand.

Selling Beckham, then, considerably fills Man United's coffers. The team isn't struggling for money, but another $40 million or so certainly wouldn't hurt. Furthermore, Beckham has accomplished all he can at United. He's won multiple league trophies, the FA cup, the Champions League--just about everything. But can he play with the big boys at clubs like Real Madrid? Can he keep up with the nature of the Spanish Primera Liga? Can he turn heads in Serie A? Is there more to his game than a sublime free kick and a long, diagonal pass?

Beckham owes it to himself to leave Manchester United, but not to come to the U.S. Beckham is well above the quality of MLS, and he will only hurt his game by coming here. Right now, Beckham's chief priority is to improve his skills as a player, and perhaps bring a World Cup trophy home to England. Beckham doesn't need to be an ambassador of the game right now; his primary purpose is to elevate his level of play.

Can England's most famous player hack it when playing against the best? The answers, it seems, do not lie in the friendly confines of Old Trafford--or, for that matter, on 5th Avenue or near Hollywood.