Welcome to the post-Beckham era of MLS.
The new chapter officially began sometime very early Sunday morning, when the last bottles of champagne were drained at the LA Galaxy’s MLS Cup 2012 victory party.
The league woke up later that day, a little hung over, and sensing a void. Just how big of a void? Well, MLS will be fine, of course — better than fine — but you know the old expression, You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone? As time goes on, we’re going to find out just how big.
But for now, let’s take stock: Before we turn to the first blockbuster trades of the young offseason (where Real Salt Lake are rumored to have gotten things off to a lively start), let’s take one more look at Becks and his impact: Where do the Beckham years stand among the great moments in North American soccer history of the past four decades?
5. Paul Caliguiri’s “Shot Heard Round the World,” World Cup qualifying, 1989
Play-by-Play: In the 30th minute of a must-win qualifier against Trinidad & Tobago in Port of Spain, the future LA Galaxy defender took a square ball from Tab Ramos and lashed a 30-yard half-volley into the right corner. The strike stood up for a 1-0 win that sent the US to the World Cup for the first time in 40 years.
Legacy: Caliguiri’s goal ushered in a new era for US soccer, qualifying the Yanks for Italia ’90, paving the way for Major League Soccer, which was founded in 1993 (before beginning play in ’96), and legitimizing the Americans’ hosting of the ’94 Cup.
Testify!: “Is there a home run, a grand slam, that changed a sport like that goal? That win made the US proud of soccer again. Our federation was completely out of money, headed for bankruptcy. What we did changed all that.” — Caliguiri, to ESPN, during the run-up to South Africa 2010
4. Pelé plays for the New York Cosmos, 1975 to ’77
Play-by-Play: He delivered a goal and an assist in his debut at the pathetically under-equipped Downing Stadium on June 15, 1975 (see it on YouTube), and helped the Cosmos to the NASL title in 1977, producing 13 goals and three assists in 25 games that year.
Legacy: Soon after Pelé’s arrival, the Cosmos moved to Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., where they regularly drew more than 40,000 fans per match (and a record 77,691 to a 1977 playoff game). He opened the NASL door for other foreign stars, including Giorgio Chinaglia, Franz Beckenbauer, Johan Cruyff and George Best. In short, he put the Cosmos, and soccer in the US, on the map, before the NASL grew too top heavy and folded in 1984.
Testify!: "The transfer coup of the century.” — English journalist Gavin Newsham
3. U.S. 2, Mexico 0, 2002 World Cup Knockout Stage
Play-by-Play: Eight minutes in, Claudio Reyna drove down the right wing and cut the ball back for Josh Wolff, who laid it off for Brian McBride to apply a side-footed finish into the far corner from 12 yards. Landon Donovan made it 2-0 in the 64th, heading home an inch-perfect cross from Eddie Lewis, who’d been sprung down the left wing by John O’Brien. Dos a cero.
Legacy: This landmark game trumps the US’ astonishing 3-2 upset of Portugal in the opening match because it both confirmed the Americans’ newfound advantage over their regional archrivals and put the Yanks in the World Cup quarterfinals, their best showing at the global event in the modern era.
Testify!: “The country is really proud of the team. A lot of people that don’t know anything about soccer, like me, are all excited and pulling for you.” — President George W. Bush, speaking to US coach Bruce Arena.
2. David Beckham plays for the LA Galaxy, 2007 to 2012
Play-by-Play: He appeared in three MLS Cup finals in six years, winning two. On Saturday, he produced a game worthy of the occasion, launching deadly accurate long balls and free kicks and working his tail off for his teammates — witness his gritty defensive play to stop Macoumba Kandji near the Galaxy endline in the 70th minute.
Legacy: MLS has learned from the mistakes of the old NASL, and can use Beckham’s transformative effect, so similar to Pelé’s, to greater advantage. Put it this way, my pal from Wisconsin, who’s not a soccer fan, took time out from recapping the latest Packers and Badgers wins to say he’d caught the game, and Beckham’s postgame interviews: “Seemed like a decent guy, who was genuinely pleased with his US experience.”
Testify!: “Twenty years from now, we’re going to look at this league and still talk about David Beckham as the one that helped turn us. He’s had a phenomenal contribution, both on the field and off.” — LA coach Bruce Arena
1. Landon Donovan’s game-winner vs. Algeria, 2010 World Cup
Play by Play: With the score tied 0-0 in stoppage time of their final group stage game, the US needed a goal against Algeria or they’d be going home. Donovan collected a superb outlet pass from Tim Howard and led a US charge, laying the ball off to Jozy Altidore in the right channel. Altidore squared it for Dempsey, whose shot was blocked. Donovan, trailing the play, pounced. Cue Ian Darke: “Oh, can you believe this?! Go, go, USA! Certainly through! Oh, it’s incredible!”
Legacy: It wasn’t the best or even the most important goal from a pure soccer perspective, but it was the first where-were-you-at-the-time goal for the casual fan or non-soccer fan in US soccer history. It also put the US through to the Round of 16 and delivered the first World Cup group win in USMNT history.
Testify!: “Soccer is ready to capture our attention.” — Headline from a 4,500-word column about soccer by ESPN basketball maven Bill Simmons in the wake of the US performance at South Africa 2010.
Some random thoughts on Saturday’s Cup and the 2012 season:
• Did you see Calen Carr leap over the corner flag after his goal? Is it too late to add that to the Celebration of the Year nominees?
• Speaking of Houston’s goalscorer and most dangerous player, the Dynamo were not the same after he left the game with a knee injury in the 59th minute. Big blow. But a great season for Houston in their historic new home, BBVA Compass Stadium.
• Let’s also pour out a little for the San Jose Earthquakes, the champions of the regular season, who delivered far more than their share of the league’s most exciting moments this year.
• We have seen The World’s Calmest Baby, Bruce Arena's grandson, who was in the Galaxy coach’s hands for the trophy presentation. That kid did not so much as utter a peep or change expression in the middle of all that madness — cheering fans, screaming players, cameras flashing, fireworks, confetti. And you thought Beckham was poised amidst all the hoopla…