NFL playoffs? Secondary sport. It's all soccer, all the time around here. The free market at work.
English superstar David Beckham announced Thursday that he's leaving Real Madrid and joining the Los Angeles Galaxy of Major League Soccer in August for a reported $250 million over five years. That would make him the highest-paid player in North American sports, more than doubling the salary that's gone a long way toward making Alex Rodriguez a pariah.
That almost certainly won't happen to Beckham, who's every bit the smooth, charming international celebrity that A-Rod will never be. He even comes complete with a fashionable wife, Victoria Beckham, whom the British press amusingly refers to as a pop star. That's sort of like calling Sally Struthers a TV star.
Sports fans in Los Angeles reacted to the stunning news Thursday by saying, "the Los Angeles who?"
Well, now they know. In the same way that Pelé signing with the New York Cosmos in 1975 helped put the North American Soccer League on the map, however temporarily, Beckham coming to the States will put MLS in the spotlight. But there are major differences.
MLS has been a lot smarter fiscally than the old free-spending NASL, and Beckham at 31 is a lot closer to his prime than the 35-year-old Pelé was in '75. Soccer is also a lot farther along in popularity in the United States than it was in 1975.
On the other hand, Beckham, for all his fame, isn't the player Pelé was, which isn't exactly an insult but is true nonetheless. He has never been a dynamic playmaker. He's a complementary player, the guy who sets up the dynamic playmaker, a species that's rare in MLS, to put it kindly. There's some speculation he'll move to central midfield with the Galaxy and become that type of dominant player against weaker competition, but that's not a sure thing.
Still, he's good enough that the reaction to Thursday's news hasn't been "$50 million a year for him?!" It's been "Wow, David Beckham's going to MLS."
He'll certainly score tons of goals in the MLS, which is practically tailor-made for his chief skill, scoring on dead balls. He'll put fannies in seats in MLS's group of soccer-only stadiums -- the best idea the league has had. And he'll put the league in the headlines, on the highlight shows and in the bar-stool conversations in a way teenage sensation Freddy Adu has not done.
You may have missed it in the "Elsewhere" roundup of your local blat recently when Adu was traded from D.C. United to Real Salt Lake, which by the way is the dumbest team name in the world, and no I haven't forgotten the Mighty Ducks.
But his long-term contribution to MLS may be his ability to attract other international superstars to what is seen internationally as a minor league, a place world-class players can go to play out the string at the end of their careers.
That's something Pelé did for the NASL. A year after Pelé signed, the Cosmos were able to get Italian star Giorgio Chinaglia, still in his prime at 29, who dominated the league. The next year Franz Beckenbauer, 32, and Carlos Alberto, 33, joined the league.
The NASL didn't work out, but if MSL can attract a similar crowd -- world-class players with some mileage left on the tires -- that would create a huge boost in the quality of play, which is one of MLS's two biggest problems. That in turn would keep the best American players at home a little longer, or bring them back a little earlier from their European careers. And, Beckham aside, it's American players who will be the most marketable.
Marketing is MLS's other big problem, and it would have to be pretty tin-eared to blow the Beckham opportunity. Hollywood photo agencies are literally staffing up in anticipation of the Beckhams' arrival.
But it has been pretty tin-eared already. How can a league that had $250 million lying around not have been a massive presence during the soccer orgy of the World Cup last year? I watched damn near the maximum number of soccer minutes physically possible during that tournament, and I don't think I noticed an MLS ad until the semifinals.
I should have been so sick of hearing about the dang MLS by that time that I couldn't see straight. If you watch sports at all, you should be able to name more MLS players than Adu and Landon Donovan, which it's likely you can't.
Beckham can't single-handedly turn MLS into a world-class league, but he can almost single-handedly turn it into a world-class marketing juggernaut. As long as MLS doesn't blow another golden opportunity.
Fifty million dollars a year is a mind-boggling amount of money. It's so much that we mere mortals can't even really get our minds around it. We get inured to these huge figures when we follow sports because they're so common. We look at baseball contracts and start thinking that $8 million and $10 million are pretty much the same thing, or that a player making $750,000 is a bargain.
I like to bring these dollar numbers down to my reality by dividing them by an amount of time so small I can recognize them as an actual amount of money. So if Beckham were working 40 hours a week year-round, he'd be making $192,307.69 a day, or $24,038.46 an hour. If you decided to hire him right when you started reading this sentence, and you read about as fast as I do, and then you decided to fire him when you got to the period, you'd owe him $66.77.
And the crazy thing is, if MLS plays it right, he'll be worth it.
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NFL divisional round [PERMALINK]
Picks in caps, with the coin-flippinest 3-year-old in America's ideas included.
Indianapolis (12-4) at BALTIMORE (13-3)
4:30 p.m. EST, CBS
A great defense is a golden ticket to a championship. So watch out for those Colts!
Well, maybe not. The Ravens are the defensive juggernaut around here, the best D in the league. The Colts were impressive last week against the one-dimensional Kansas City Chiefs. They shut down the one dimension, Larry Johnson, and that was that, not to underplay the achievement of a defense that had reached levels of all-time not-goodness against the run stopping Larry Johnson.
The thing about the Ravens is they can move the ball a little bit too. And while the cliché referenced above -- defense wins championships -- is omnipresent, what really wins championships is defense, plus enough offense. Or vice versa, though that method's a little less reliable, as the offense-minded Colts have been learning this decade.
The Baltimore pass rush will test Peyton Manning's ability to avoid sacks and make plays. Manning and his receivers are generally up to most challenges -- except in January, when they've been a lot more iffy. With Steve McNair directing an effective mix of runs and passes for the Ravens, the Colts won't be able to fly around on defense the way they did against Kansas City. They'll be on the field too long and they'll wear down.
The Colts will also be out in the elements in front of a particularly hostile crowd -- kids, ask your parents: The Colts used to play in Baltimore. This just isn't the game for Indy. The Ravens have that Super Bowl look.
Buster's pick: Indianapolis (coin)
PHILADELPHIA (10-6) at New Orleans (10-6)
8 p.m. EST, Fox
Sometime before the season was half over, the Saints ceased being a feel-good story and started being a legitimate playoff team. They hit a rough patch in November, losing three of four, but they're back, playing solid defense, riding a brilliant season by quarterback Drew Brees and winning four of their last five meaningful games, not counting a Week 17 loss to the Panthers by the second team.
The Eagles, meanwhile, are hanging on by their hangnails. They had to struggle at home last week to beat what had become a really bad New York Giants team, and it looks like the magic dust is starting to wash off backup quarterback/season-saver Jeff Garcia.
Throw in an injury to Pro Bowl cornerback Lito Sheppard and a raucous home crowd for the city-on-their-backs Saints, and this looks like the end of the road for the Eagles.
And that, my friends, is why I'm picking them. Because this is the NFL.
Buster's pick: New Orleans (coin)
Seattle (9-7) at CHICAGO (13-3)
1 p.m. EST, Fox
For all the talk that the Bears are toast because Rex Grossman just can't handle the quarterback position, I don't see it. The Bears look like the class of this weak conference, with only New Orleans a worthy opponent, and I have New Orleans getting upset Saturday.
The Seahawks are lucky to be here, thanks to the Dallas Cowboys meltdown last week, but just because you're lucky to get to a game doesn't mean you can't win it. The fact that the Seahawks don't figure to be able to do much against the Chicago defense is what means they won't win.
Incidentally, that timing error that I thought I noticed on the Cowboys' muffed field goal that nobody else seems to have noticed? It really was a timing error. The clock didn't start until holder Tony Romo was tackled following his muff recovery and scramble, and only five seconds ran off on what should have been about an 11-second play.
Some readers had speculated that the five-second rule had come into play. But that rule, which dictates that only five seconds can tick off on a field goal, doesn't come into play if the ball is never kicked. An NFL spokesman told me that what happened was "an administrative error on the clock operator, and during the confusion nobody noticed."
It turned out not to matter, because Seattle got a first down on the next play, which allowed the Seahawks to run the clock down to two seconds before Dallas got the ball back. But had the Cowboys stopped the Seahawks on that first series, the error might have come into play. Interesting only to me because I noticed it.
Buster's pick: Chicago (8.5-point favorite)
New England (12-4) at SAN DIEGO (14-2)
4:30 p.m. EST, CBS
The Patriots have that look again, don't they? Sort of under the radar for most of the season, capable of doing things like losing 21-0 in Miami. But you look up in January and they've gone 12-4 and won a playoff game by three touchdowns, they haven't lost a game other than that one in Miami since mid-November, and they're just hitting the snot out of people, as is their practice.
A few years ago I vowed to never again pick against the Pats in the postseason until somebody beat them. But somebody did beat them -- Denver, last year -- and anyway I think I'd broken the vow by then already. And as good as the Patriots looked last week against the Jets, I'm picking against them again.
I know, New England coach Bill Belichick is a playoff genius and Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer is his polar opposite at this time of the year. But the Chargers look like a legitimate 14-2 team, and I'd say they look like a Super Bowl team if I hadn't jumped on the Baltimore bandwagon in the last few weeks.
As good as the Patriots defense looks when it's teeing off on pass-happy offenses like Peyton Manning's, it has a little more trouble with teams that can pound the ball, like last year's Broncos. And maybe you've heard about this fellow LaDainian Tomlinson, who has scored six touchdowns since you woke up this morning.
San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers has been fading a bit down the stretch, but with Rodney Harrison out for New England, Rivers should be able to rely heavily on tight end Antonio Gates to mix things up and keep the Patriots from ganging up on Tomlinson.
It's always an iffy bet to go against the Patriots and against their quarterback Tom Brady, who finds ways to win even this year, without the receiving talent he's had for most of his career. That lack of weaponry in the passing game will be the difference in this one, I think. But I'm really flipping a coin. The best matchup of the weekend figures to provide the best game of the weekend.
Buster's pick: New England (coin)
Previous column: Bonds tests positive
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