'Beckham experiment' shows signs of success as fans flock to MLS final

Los Angeles

Question: What is the hottest ticket in LA this weekend? Answer: a seat just above the half way line of the Home Depot Center in Carson. Here, amid the smog and sprawl of Southern California, the local side will tonight bid for a little place in history: as national champions of a sport their fans call "soccer."

The final of MLS Cup, the US league's post-season playoffs, is the biggest game in the North American football calendar. This year, that actually seems to count for something. Tickets in the 30,000-seat stadium are long sold out, and on the secondary market, where US law permits sports tickets to be bought and sold, they were yesterday changing hands for between $150 and $350.

In a country that measures the worth of everything - particularly sports - in dollars and cents, that's a big deal. Earlier this week, when demand for seats at the big game peaked, a pair of seats in the "prawn sandwich" section (known locally as the "fish taco" enclosure) were changing hands for nearer $1,000.

It's too early, of course to call Los Angeles a soccer town. Basketball is this city's beautiful game, with baseball and college football following close behind. But there is palpable buzz, nonetheless, about the fact that the MLS's glamour side, the Los Angeles Galaxy, have made it into the cup final, with an unbeaten home record that stretches back the entire season.

The team boasts a solid core of key players, alongside several breakout stars who can be described as household names. David Beckham and the US national team's striker Landon Donovan run the midfield with Brazil's Juninho. Irish striker Robbie Keane, who joined the club in August, adds a cutting edge up front.

Galaxy's opponents, the Houston Dynamo, are short on stars, and missing their target man Brad Davis, who tore his quadriceps in a 2-0 semi final victory against Sporting Kansas. But they nonetheless have wind in their sails. They were dead and buried in the league back in July, until head coach Dominic Kinnear signed Scottish pro Adam Moffatt, and Brazillian Luiz Camargo.

After that, they hit inspired run of form. Since the start of August, the Dynamo have lost just a single game, beating Galaxy 3-1 at home as recently as last month. They play hard, and they play smart. "If LA are all about finesse, you could say that Dynamo are brute force," is how the Houston Chronicle's beat writer Jesus Ortiz puts it. "They are tough to break down and dangerous from set pieces. It's anyone's game."

Whoever wins tonight's big match, the year's biggest victor will be almost certainly be Major League Soccer. Derided as a joke little over a decade ago, with substandard teams and apathetic fans, the MLS is quietly starting to mature into a commercial, and footballing success story.

You can see as much in the fact that tonight's fixture will be broadcast on ESPN, the biggest sports station in the US, and syndicated to 120 countries. Or in the announcement that NBC will next year being paying $10m a season to screen MLS games. Not bad, for a league which little more than a decade ago was forced to pay broadcasters to screen its fixtures.

You can see it in the fact that the "expansion" fee for a new side seeking to join the league is now $40 million, four times its level in 2000, and a sum that Montreal will stump up this close season when their team "The Impact" becomes the 19th MLS side. Or in the fact that Galaxy, the league's most valuable franchise, is now valued at $100m

You'll notice it in the stands, too. Attendances are meanwhile up seven percent this year, despite the down economy, to more than 17,000 fans for an average game. That figure, the eleventh highest in world football, comes despite the fact that only a handful of MLS grounds hold more than 20,000 supporters.

On the pitch, there are now 38 players in the league who have represented their country, ranging from Thierry Henry, to Juan Pablo Angel, and Mexico's Rafael Marquez. The standard of football, and starriness of the league's roster of talent, seems to improve every year.

Many say that improvement was kick-started by the so-called "Beckham experiment."

Tonight's fixture could very well mark the end of that experiment, since it represents the end of Beckham's $32.5, five-year contract. The former England captain has been offered an extension by Galaxy, but several wealthy European clubs are also competing for his affections.

"He's helped make this team better, he's helped make the league better," was how Galaxy Coach Bruce Arena summed Beckham's impact this week. "It's a much more popular sport now, and at a time when the competition for the sports dollar is greater than ever. I would say it's been a pretty good experiment."

All of which means that, if this really is the end, Beckham can leave the US with at least some sense of achievement - regardless of what takes place at the Home Depot Center in Carson tonight.

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