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US soccer bends itself to Beckham

Football superstar David Beckham is set to be unveiled as a Los Angeles Galaxy player here on Friday, kicking off what could well become the most challenging phase.

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LOS ANGELES: Football superstar David Beckham is set to be unveiled as a Los Angeles Galaxy player here on Friday, kicking off what could well become the most challenging phase of his much-storied career.

Beckham, 32, will earn an estimated $250 million over his five-year contract period with the team. Much of that money will come from advertising endorsements. But at least $5.5 million per year will come in the form of base salary and for that Beckham will have his work cut out.

The Galaxy currently languishes next-to-bottom in Major League Soccer, the premier competition in the US, even though it has another footballer widely believed to be the best current US-born player in striker Landon Donovan.

Beckham has already started to improve his team's finances, giving the Galaxy about $20 million in extra revenue through increased ticket sales and sponsorships, said Tim Leiweke, the chief executive of the Anschutz Entertainment Group, which owns the team.

With the US media breathlessly reporting on the arrival of the global superstar and his pop star wife Victoria, other teams in the league are also hoping for higher attendance when the sharp-shooting midfielder visits with his team.

From The New York Times to CNN to local newspapers and obsessive bloggers, there's no doubt that the former Galactico at Real Madrid, England captain and Manchester United star has ignited interest in the sport unparalleled since Brazilian legend Pele joined the New York Cosmos in 1975.

But league officials are keen to point out that Beckham arrives at a time when US soccer is finally beginning to lodge itself firmly in the mainstream. The growing strength of the Latino population, with their deeply ingrained football traditions, only helps that dynamic.

"I don't want anybody to think Beckham will save soccer in America; it doesn't need to be saved," MLS commissioner Don Garber told The New York Times. "Soccer is doing just fine. Beckham will help it do a little better."

That's not just the self-serving hype of an industry executive. Though few teams have yet to turn a profit, the future looks good. Soccer is amazingly popular among US youth.

According to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, 14.5 million Americans played soccer in 2006, and two-thirds of them were younger than 18. Not only does that make soccer almost as popular a participatory sport as baseball, it also boasts far more female players.

The interest is filtering up. The final of last month's Gold Cup, a regional tournament that featured the US and Mexico in the championship game, drew 40 percent more television households than did the concluding game of ice hockey's Stanley Cup finals.

The combined American television audience for the final of the 2006 World Cup on ABC and Spanish-language Univision was 16.9 million viewers, compared to an average audience of 15.8 million viewers for the 2006 Baseball World Series on Fox.

Beckham's arrival will fuel this interest, while his movie star looks will help attract more women to the stands than do its rivals like American football and basketball.

But the true test will come on the field where Beckham will have to inspire his team mates to improve their performance. Former England player Rodney March, who used to play in the US, warned Beckham that life in the US leagues would be "hell".

Factoring in the huge distances travelled for away games, the constant media scrutiny and the weight of expectations, Marsh told British paper The Mail on Sunday that Beckham "won't know what's hit him".

Beckham's fans dismiss that prognosis.

"People have been writing him off for his entire career," said Lee Asuedo, a 17-year-old fan of the Galaxy. He's proved them wrong every time and he'll prove them wrong again."

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