Sounders FC

Celebrities help raise MLS profile

When Seattle Sounders FC visits the Los Angeles Galaxy on Saturday (kickoff 8 p.m. on KONG-TV 6/16), two of Major League Soccer’s six designated players will share the pitch: Freddie Ljungberg and David Beckham.

In some ways, the players are alike. Each played more than a decade in the English Premier League. Each is a midfielder who can have an effect on games without scoring goals. Each is by far the highest-paid player on his team. Each even has been hired to model underwear.

Yet, while Ljungberg has seemed to settle comfortably into the fabric of the Sounders’ roster, Beckham has had enough on- and off-field melodrama in L.A. to fill a book – specifically, “The Beckham Experiment” by Grant Wahl.

Wahl doesn’t sound surprised that Beckham’s experience should be so different from Ljungberg’s, because he believes Beckham is the only MLS designated player with the pop-culture popularity to pull fans into stadiums.

“There are very few players in the world who can do that sort of thing,” Wahl said in a phone interview this week. “Beckham is such a global celebrity outside of sports in a way that no other soccer player is. (FC Barcelona star) Thierry Henry could come to New York next year and be a really good player; but Thierry Henry doesn’t have the celebrity side going the way Beckham does. And that was part of the reason for bringing him to America, was to get all of these people who may not consider themselves soccer fans to go to games and watch on TV.”

Beckham doesn’t notably move the meter on televised Galaxy games. But he spikes attendance in a way unmatched by any of the league’s other designated players: Ljungberg in Seattle, Cuauhtemoc Blanco in Chicago, Juan Pablo Angel in New York, Guillermo Barros Schelotto in Columbus or Luciano Emilio with D.C. United.

“Maybe Cuauhtemoc Blanco in Chicago has helped attendance a little bit because he’s such a popular Mexican player and there are so many Mexican soccer fans in Chicago,” Wahl said. “It spiked attendance a little bit when he arrived in 2007, but I don’t think it really does much anymore.”

Increased attendance is part of the reason MLS created the designated-player rule, which allows each team one high-profile signing that doesn’t fully count against each team’s $2 million salary cap.

In the cases of Beckham ($6.5 million) and Blanco (almost $2.9 million), their individual salaries top those of all their teammates combined.

According to the MLS players association, Ljungberg’s $1.3 million salary is $1 million a year more than veteran teammate Kasey Keller, while even Keller makes 15 times more than rookie Sanna Nyassi.

In Wahl’s book, that kind of salary disparity was among the reasons Beckham has never been just one of the guys among the Galaxy.

However, Ljungberg said Thursday he doesn’t believe his millionaire status has separated him from his teammates in any disruptive way.

“When we play in Europe … you have young guys that don’t earn close to as much as the big boys do,” Ljungberg said. “That’s the same thing, I would say. Maybe it’s a bit more graphic: You don’t earn so much money, some of the young ones down on the roster here. But I don’t feel it that way. They want me here to help and I try to help my young guys and my teammates as much as I can. My teammates have just been great.”

The MLS collective bargaining agreement with its players expires at the end of this season. Matters such as minimum salaries, team budgets and perhaps even an increase in the number of designated players are all up for negotiation – especially after international teams touring the country this summer showed MLS owners that American fans will pay to watch high-quality soccer.

“We’ve got to manage our business to the market, and the market is growing in a big way,” commissioner Don Garber said at the MLS All-Star Game last month in Utah.

“So, if there is an opportunity for us to capture that market with an adjustment to our business model, we’ll do that. But we’re not going to do it just because we look at a couple of exhibition games and think we’ve got to go out and compete with AC Milan or Chelsea. … You’re talking about $200 million in salaries for some of these teams. We have a salary budget of $2 million. So the delta between two and 200 is so vast that it’s going to take us a generation before we’re competing against FC Barcelona for players.”

Don Ruiz, 253-597-8808