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Defining Beckham

Now that the madness surrounding Beckham's signing with MLS has died down a bit, I am beginning to wonder how the general public will measure his success on the field. After all, Beckham is not a big goal scorer (like a Ronaldo, Rooney or Henry) and, to many casual sports fans, numbers are the true way to define an athlete. In baseball, a player might not hit a home run, but we can glance at the box score, notice he went 2 for 5 with an RBI and a run scored, and conclude that he had a good game. Same with basketball and, to some extent, with hockey (goals, assists, plus-minus, penalty minutes). In soccer, statistics play such a small role in personal performance, how do we measure success?

This problem surfaced a couple years ago when Freddy Adu was settling into the league. As one high-ranking USSF official warned at the time, "If he doesn't score goals, people are going to lose interest. It's not fair to him, but that is what will happen."

Casual fans would ask me, "How many goals has Freddy scored?" I would say three (or whatever). They would say, "Oh, he's not so good, huh?" My response was, "Well, actually, he is quite good. There are things he does that cannot be measured statistically." They didn't understand.

Which leads us to Beckham. We know he's going to swerve a few free kicks into the net. He might be called upon for penalty kicks. His assists total should be impressive (How excited is a tall target like Nate Jaqua??). But in those games in which Beckham has no statistical input, how will the average sports fan -- those folks who have suddenly taken an interest in soccer because of Beckham yet still have the traditional American mind-set of defining success through statistics -- view him, the league and the sport?

Your thoughts?

By Steve Goff  |  January 24, 2007; 9:15 AM ET
Categories:  Beckham  
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It has to be something that the league is somewhat worried about. If, as I suspect, sportscenter will always show highlights of LA's matches, he would do well to at least have one near-miss free kick per game. If he scores a bunch of "trademark" free-kicks, that would probably be enough to appease folks without the sophistication to assess the relative performance of a midfielder.

Posted by: Eric | January 24, 2007 9:43 AM | Report abuse

Hi Steve,

Glad to see you've joined the blogosphere. My quick take on your question is that the casual sports fan will be impressed with Beckham's ability to deliver on free kicks. Yes it is cliche, but when he bends the ball over a wall and into the net, even in a moderately spectacular fashion, it will make the highlight reel. I would also say that any sports fan that appreciates very good passing (Basketball and Hocky) might also be impressed with Beckham's skill in this area. Finally, his overall technical skill, while middle of the pack in Europe, will be of the highest caliber for MLS.



Posted by: Dan | January 24, 2007 9:48 AM | Report abuse

Beckham should be a very dangerous player in MLS. At 31, he's younger than Gomez and Moreno. He may have lost a step and was never that fast, but MLS is a slower game. Nevertheless, he will have many tricks up his sleeve to befuddle MLS defenders. A topic that I have not seen addressed is whether he will be fit for MLS' summer schedule. He's likely to wilt in his first match in KC, Columbus. or DC - 90 degrees and 95% humidity.

Posted by: I-270 Exit 1 | January 24, 2007 9:50 AM | Report abuse

Great point about the impact of heat and humidity on Beckham and his fitness level (especially if he arrives having not played a full 90 in months). Many have wilted during an MLS summer!

Posted by: Goff | January 24, 2007 9:54 AM | Report abuse

Most of the people coming to an MLS game to see Beckham are going to see his a$$. They couldn't care less if he scored 20 goals a game or danced the macarena.

Posted by: DCAustinite | January 24, 2007 9:59 AM | Report abuse

What if LA gets relegated?

Posted by: Dan2, electric boogaloo | January 24, 2007 10:35 AM | Report abuse

This is a good point and it may have broader implications for the MLS. It might be a good idea for the league to look at how to quantify some of the intangibles (oxymoron?) in the game to give the American sports fan something more to follow. Baseball has slugger ratings, quarterbacks have ratings. American fans like to compare individuals, so you need something beyond goals and assists to appeal to that. Even if that doesn't bring in new fans, it enhances the experience for existing fans and increases their commitment to the sport.

Posted by: Terp | January 24, 2007 10:39 AM | Report abuse

I wonder at what point things shift in terms of the way soccer fits into the American sports landscape. I'm 26, and most people my age and younger have played soccer and can appreciate (to varying degrees) Beckham's impact without the stats. I still firmly believe the best way for MLS to succeed is to continue to raise the level of play on the field. Get a good soccer product out there and the fans will notice. Dispense with the gimmicks to make soccer more like "American" sports.

Posted by: tmc | January 24, 2007 10:39 AM | Report abuse

The Actim Index they use for the Premier League could be used here....

Calculation 1 - Assesses a player's contribution to a winning team, based on points won by the team when he appeared.

Calculation 2 - Assesses a player's performance in each game, by allocating points for actions that positively contribute to a winning performance such as shots, tackles, clearances and saves. It also takes points away from players for negative actions such as yellow/red cards and shots off target.

Calculation 3 - Allocates points based on time on the pitch.

Calculation 4 - Allocates points for goal scorers.

Calculation 5 - Allocates points for assists.

Calculation 6 - Allocates points for clean sheets.

Posted by: Eric | January 24, 2007 10:47 AM | Report abuse

the actim index sounds like a good idea. plus, it's used in the EPL, so the eurosnobs shouldn't be mad about the US creating some wacky statistic.

Posted by: hokie soccer fan | January 24, 2007 10:54 AM | Report abuse

The only likely scenario for non-soccer fans to hear about Beckham are the rare Sportscenter clips of his successful free kicks and the number of goals he scores. Either way, what does it matter. I can't see non-soccer fans coming to games regardless of who is playing. So what that non-soccer people think Freddy is a failure for not scoring tons of goals, they weren't there to watch him and wouldn't know if he was a good player or not.

If you really want stats, Opta (IIRC) is a company that tracks stats for everything in soccer - passing completions, passing distances, dribble results, etc... You see those stats used on EPL broadcasts all the time or refered to by the announcers.

Posted by: DCFan | January 24, 2007 11:41 AM | Report abuse

Are we soccer fans just a little too high on ourselves though? I think the average sports fan can appreciate soccer. The challenge is that the American sports landscape is crowded, and let's face it, soccer is a slower paced game than the NBA and lacks the violence of the NFL.

Posted by: DC | January 24, 2007 11:44 AM | Report abuse

The only problem I have with this quantification is that you lose the "beautiful" of the beautiful game. El Diablo was FAR more brilliant to watch in the first one or two seasons of MLS than would ever show up in a Actim Index. Yes he was on a championship team, but Moreno scored the goals and played just as much. Not taking anything away from Moreno, but I'd MUCH rather watch Etcheverry. His skill on the ball was in a league of its own, regardless of whether the play resulted in a goal, or happened in the middle third. Most of those plays didn't make the 11 o'clock news in D.C., let alone Sportscenter. How would Beckham's play be any different, except that he doesn't have the touch of an Etcheverry?

A 40 yard driven redirect that hits in-stride on the penetrating run (Beckham's early trademark before the free kicks) would not be able to be appreciated by someone who hasn't played, or at least known the game. He has star power and name recognition, but the non-soccer or new-to-soccer observer won't understand what the fuss and funds are all about.

The other thing that is unusual about Beckham is his country of origin. The Latin American players have directly packed the stands by helping draw Latino crowds. I'm not sure if Beckham will have quite as strong of pull with any particular target group. Does the MLS expect a rush of teenage girls checking out his assets? And if they do, how much repeat business is in that marketing segment for a professional sports league? The average sports fan (straight male) cares very little for that. I'm just not sure that Beckham will be appreciated by the "Average Sports Fan" beyond being married to a pretty face.

Posted by: LeesburgSoccerFan | January 24, 2007 11:56 AM | Report abuse

I hear your point Steve, and I've heard similar criticisms from the soccer haters out there in the media. "Soccer has no highlights; Americans love highlights; Americans will fall out of love with Beckham; Soccer will never make it."

But really, it's a chicken and egg thing. Think about NASCAR. Wildly popular in the US, but for someone like me, it's a sport without highlights. The winner is the guy in first place at the end, so what? One highlight then ... of the guy crossing first. But when you understand and love the sport, there are tons of highlights. A nice pass executed because a driver took a risky line through a turn. A decision in a pitstop to take on fuel, or change tires, or change the suspension. And the bumping and grinding that leads to a crash and ultimately, the crash itself.

In my view, these are not highlights, these are dull elements to a dull sport, but people in the US grew to love it and the dull elements turned to highlights. There's no reason this can't happen to soccer. I love and understand the sport, for me, of course goals are highlights, but so are diagonal passes opening up a defense, a hard but clean tackle, a brilliant save, a crucial substitution.

It's on the league and the fans to explain the sport and give new fans an appreciation of what the highlights really are. NASCAR did a great job of this and Jeff Gordon was the golden boy that got people watching. Forget Pele and NASL. Can Beckham do for MLS what Jeff Gordon did for NASCAR? I believe he can.

Posted by: skippy | January 24, 2007 11:58 AM | Report abuse

But there is something American about NASCAR. Will Americans ever fall in love with something that is not ours, that we are not the best at?

Posted by: DC | January 24, 2007 12:15 PM | Report abuse

People who show up at a game to see a circus will not be drawn in by good midfield play.

However, I think there are a number of Ex-Pats from futbol nations who have not given MLS a look yet, and Beckham may get them back to have another look.

Beckham can not convert haters, but he can draw in those that have yet to give MLS a fair shake, but do have a mind open to soccer.

Posted by: JR | January 24, 2007 12:16 PM | Report abuse

The real answer lies in the quality of announcers in the league, which is lacking. Holds true for many sports and makes me sad I'm not doing the color analysis.

To me, good announcing means describing what you are seeing. Some in the NFL will utilize this the most by stating the pattern of the WR and the mechanics of the quarterback for example.

Sports like soccer and hockey (my two loves) need MUCH more of this. Noting the little touches and developing strategy that unfold without interruption. Positioning decisions and creativity. That's what makes these sports great. Someone get me a job as an MLS announcer and I'll do this for ya!

Posted by: The Answer | January 24, 2007 12:29 PM | Report abuse

Here's a stat that is widely used but I don't see over here hardly at all ...

Game ratings. Soccernet's Carlisle gave them out for the U.S. friendly with Denmark. Simply put, 10 is screamingly good (and I dont think I've ever seen them) and two or three means you whiffed on a throw-in to your own goal. Most of the player ratings are in the five to seven range. Also, a two sentence assessment of each player explaining why they got that ranking also allows the writer to educate a newer fan on that nuance that was missed.

Frankly, I'm surprised they haven't caught on owith the soccer press in the U.S. I think that weekly player ratings like those that appear in Gazette del Sport and many of the Fleet Street papers could be used. Steve, why don't you use them more? Jon and the High School team taking up too much of your space?

Posted by: Grant | January 24, 2007 1:52 PM | Report abuse

Good points about the quality of the TV broadcasts and the growth of NASCAR in relation to MLS. Would the NFL be what it is today without Madden and Summerall? Would anyone get into NASCAR without the announcers providing thoughtful analysis? The MLS has been around a long time, but still doesn't have respectable TV coverage. TV coverage can educate the "average sports fan" into the nuances of soccer, eventually bringing them to the "new stadium" as fans. Zzzzzzzzz.

I personally grew up watching Mexico '86 and the like on Univision without speaking a word of Spanish because they were the only ones to show soccer. I still don't speak it a lick, but would rather watch any game with Andres Cantor than have to listen to some second-rate ex-U.S. player as an announcer. The banter is inane and they don't know when NOT to talk and just say the last name of the player with the ball. A lot of English-only non-soccer fans know Andres Cantol's GOOOOOLLL, but not the game. Does getting Beckham address any of this stuff? Unfortunately not. The level of play has improved dramatically in the MLS, but the media savvy of the league is still minor league. Beckham's arrival is not much different than that of Pele, Beckenbauer, Cruyff, or wait-a-minute Georgie Best in the NASL.

Posted by: LeesburgSoccerFan | January 24, 2007 2:00 PM | Report abuse

I think Becks will make more of an impact in TV endorsements than his play on the pitch. He'll do some nice things -- he has a flair that will show up here and there on Sportscenter, but the $$ he's making might bring over more quality players.

That said, if MLS could lure Zidane over, I think that could really change things. Our domestic soccer needs a dose of European 'tude. We need players that inspire love and hate. Rivalries make sports. Bringing over a guy with the kind of pride Zizou has, and then cutting him lose in MLS, I think that would shake things up. Some of our young talented players could benefit from an old bull like Zidane showing them a tougher, harder version of "the beautiful game." That would be fun to watch.

Posted by: neophyte futbol fan | January 24, 2007 5:58 PM | Report abuse

Soccer has a few things going for it on TV, especially the lack of commercials. I think American sports viewers will get the sudden changes of possession, the fouls questions, and the difficulty in scoring goals--which makes waiting for a goal potenitally engaging, and is probably the underlying tension.

Nobody knew much about American football until the announcers got good, way back when. The World Cup was an announcing disaster for soccer. Obrien calling it in baseball rhythms, and Wynalda--don't get me started on Wynalda, the endless negative crap spoken with that exasperated know-it-all tone.

Futbol or soccer or whatever we call it is different, and Beckham is a good character to watch to learn about it's particular joys. TV in the USA has a lot to learn about how to present it, but they introduced the world to the fact that it is all about knowing the players intimately.

And because of the nation we are--not until at least some of the players are rich. Who cares about a fullback making $30,000? Ah, but Beckham--can he justify himself?

It's all good. Now get somebody with the right accent --Bruce ARena? --to call the matches.

Posted by: CW | January 24, 2007 6:28 PM | Report abuse

It's a good question about will Americans take to something that is not ours? As a comparison, take a look at the situation with USA basketball. Just a few years ago this was our game and the US team of college kids could sleep walk to an Olympic Gold Medal and the Dream Teams could go through the motions to bring home the world championships. Not anymore - because the European and South American countries are focusing on the fundamentals and have overtaken the US in terms of team basketball. Basketball is flourishing in those countries. The same can happen for soccer in the US but unfortunately it will take a strong showing in, or the winning of a World Cup - and it will take skilled marketing of the game and its players. Beckham, no matter how he plays, will be a positive for the league because he is driven, unlike his predescessors such as Mattheus or Djorkaiev (sp?). They were here to finish a career. Beckham is here to also finish his soccer career, but begin his second career in L.A. To be successful in that endeavor in Hollywood, he will need to be successful on the field as well. Americans don't take to slackers. His presence will give the entire league exposure and will almost certainly draw to MLS others with still some good years left.

Posted by: PW | January 25, 2007 2:39 PM | Report abuse

A lot of it is perception. All I heard from casual viewers of WC06 was how pathetic all the diving was, and it only enforced the long-standing myth of soccer as a "wuss" sport.

Long-time soccer players and fans know that it can be very rough and violent at times. But on SportsCenter highlights you see only goals, corners and free kicks.

What was the most talked about thing about the WC this year? The 30-yard strikes? The fantastic keeper saves? No, it was Zidane's headbutt in the final. Show some hard tackles in MLS highlights as well. Let the fans know that diving in US soccer isn't prevalent like it was in the WC and that MLSers are tough guys too.

The commentary needs to analyze the game more than just individual performances. We know at the beginning whether a team is going to play a 4-4-2 or a 4-3-3, but you hardly hear during a game why it's being done or how it's working toward a build-up toward the goal.

Maybe a picture-in-picture deal to show replays during action. Get creative on the production side.

Posted by: Darin | January 26, 2007 3:03 PM | Report abuse

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