MLS playoffs better with Becks

GARETH WHEELER, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 10:52 AM ET

Major League Soccer's playoffs are up and running. Did you notice? Probably not.

After Toronto FC's meltdown on the final day of the season and the circus that ensued, TFC fans, for the most part, have turned off their MLS radar.

This columnist has never been a supporter of a playoff format to decide a champion. But, that being said, there is more reason to watch the MLS playoffs this year than ever.

This year, the playoffs have Beckham.

Yes friends, the same David Beckham many deemed a colossal failure in MLS.

Beckham experienced his first taste of MLS playoff action as his Los Angeles Galaxy played Chivas USA to a 2-2 draw yesterday in the first-leg of their opening round two-game playoff series.

Just months ago, many thought Beckham would not be in MLS anymore, let alone playing for a title-contending team.

In fact, when Beckham's future with the Galaxy was in doubt last spring, it became trendy to bash the 34-year old poster boy. Many had written off the "Beckham experiment" as an epic failure. He was carved by his teammates on a professional and personal level, and soccer analysts and media questioned his commitment and play. Same goes for Galaxy fans, many whom felt betrayed by Beckham for wanting to stay in Italian Serie A.

But, seriously, who could blame Beckham for wanting to play at a prestigious club like AC Milan -- especially after his rocky start in MLS.

Battling injuries, dealing with inferior MLS playing surfaces and stadia while playing for one of the worst teams in league history clearly wore on him. And the critics had their knives out, because North American sports fans want instantaneous results. They want goals, they want assists. But soccer isn't a game one player can take over single- handedly -- it isn't the NBA.

From the get-go, Beckham was set up to fail, making him an easy target. And it's just now that we're getting a clearer indication of what Beckham is or isn't.

He was never going to single-handedly make MLS more appealing to the masses. He was never going to make soccer more watchable to the non-soccer fan. Sure, he sold a boatload of jerseys and became a topic of conversation around water-coolers. But what does that mean long-term for MLS?

In fact, MLS attendance went down 2.6% this year, and it could have been a lot worse if it were not for the overwhelming success of the expansion Seattle Sounders. And, in an ever-fluctuating economy, MLS, like all pro sports leagues, has its fair share of issues going forward, with or without Beckham.

But if we're talking on-field integrity and improvement in the quality of play, which are of the utmost importance to MLS, Beckham has helped.

And as he continues to shine on that front, his critics have disappeared.

Beckham always has had superior ball distribution and vision. And credit Bruce Arena for coming to the Galaxy and putting an actual team around him, giving Beckham a fighting chance from a competitive perspective.

And contrary to popular belief, it is Beckham's quality, not his name, that has him returning to Milan in January, and most likely South Africa as part of the England set-up at the World Cup in June.

So let's call this playoff run the ultimate litmus test for the "Beckham experiment." If Beckham helps the Galaxy to an MLS Cup, his stay cannot be a considered a failure.

In all likelihood, this will be Beckham's swan song in MLS. With him going back to Milan, and the World Cup highlighting his 2010 summer, it's quite understandable why he'll leave after this year.

And there's no better way to go out than making like George Costanza and leaving on a high note.

GARETH.WHEELER@SUNTV.CANOE.CA


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