IF MAJOR League Soccer were to pinpoint the moment it hit its target audience, it would be around 12:45 a.m. EST on Jan. 17. In a Late Night with Conan O'Brien comedy bit, the host and his band leader, Max Weinberg, had a long debate on how the arrival of English superstar David Beckham would change Quavas Kirk's role in the Los Angeles Galaxy's midfield. So what if neither O'Brien nor Weinberg had the vaguest understanding of what was on their cue cards? The Galaxy's acquisition of Beckham had inspired a routine on a talk show geared to 18- to 34-year-olds—the demographic charished by MLS.
Now there's just that pesky matter of the actual game to sell. When the league kicks off its 12th season on April 7, Beckham will be 6,000 miles away, playing out his contract with Real Madrid. So before MLS can unveil its crossover star in an early July match, the weight of the league's expectations will fall hardest on Beckham's future teammate—25-year-old midfielder Landon Donovan, a two-time World Cup veteran and, in the words of Los Angeles coach Frank Yallop, "the best player the U.S. has produced, ever."
In addition to being the league's de facto ambassador, Donovan will have to prepare his teammates for the hype storm stirred up by the British tabloids and due to hit L.A. when Becks and his wife, Victoria, arrive. "The media, the attention, the crowds we're going to have—you can't tell people how that's going to be," Donovan says. "I haven't dealt with it in the way Beckham has, and I'm the most experienced from that perspective." Donovan will also have to carry the Galaxy on the field until Beckham's debut. "The first half of the season is when we need to be successful," says Los Angeles president and G.M. Alexi Lalas, "because the second half is going to be crazy."
Donovan has been under fire before. Last year ended in failure for the two teams that depend on him: the U.S., which went three-and-out at the World Cup, and the Galaxy, which failed to make the playoffs for the first time. "That wears on your confidence when you go through three bad games like that," he says of the U.S.'s washout in Germany. "I was excited to get back and try to make this a better team and get us in the playoffs. It didn't work."
Along with D.C. United, L.A. is the most successful franchise in league history—the two clubs have combined for six of the 11 MLS titles, and between them they have made 10 Cup finals. For one of the league's crown jewels to miss the playoffs is a problem; with Beckham and a handful of talented newcomers on the Galaxy's roster, anything less than a Cup appearance this year would be a disaster for L.A. and MLS.
Yallop, long a believer in the traditional 4-4-2 formation, has installed a new attack-heavy 4-3-3 that will eventually place Beckham in the central midfield, where he will have more room to dispense his world-renowned laser-beam passes to Kirk, Santino Quaranta and newly acquired Nate Jaqua. One of the league's most dangerous players with the ball in the open field, Donovan will operate as an attacking mid. It will be up to him not only to create scoring opportunities for others but also to find the back of the net himself.
Much like last year, the Galaxy may lose as many as eight players to national team call-ups for three big tournaments: the CONCACAF Gold Cup from June 6 to 24; the Copa América (South America's championship, to which the U.S. was invited) from June 26 to July 15; and the Under 20 World Cup from June 30 to July 22. Donovan will play in the Gold Cup, when the U.S. will defend its North/Central America crown. "I'm not ecstatic about being gone [for games and training] for a month and a half," says the Galaxy captain. "Part of me wants to play the tournaments; a bigger part of me wants to be here to help this team."
As MLS's craziest and most anticipated season grows near, the Galaxy still has no idea what it will get from the 31-year-old Beckham, who suffered a strained right knee ligament in March. But it knows what it has in Donovan. Says Yallop, "He's in our hearts in everything we try to do."
Subplots for Season 12
Acquired by Real Salt Lake from D.C. United, 17-year-old Freddy Adu (below) will play his preferred position, attacking midfielder. If he doesn't break out this year, it may never happen.
NEW BRAZILIAN IMPORTS
With striker Luciano Emilio and expert playmaker Helbert Frederico Carreiro da Silva—known simply as Fred—on board, can D.C. simply turn games into highlight reels?
Will the play of Toronto FC justify its already rabid fan support? The expansion club has sold 14,000 of the 20,000 BMO Field seats to season-ticket holders.
The New York Red Bulls have brought midfield maestro Claudio Reyna back from Europe. Now which big name will they sign to bolster their untested front line?
In the new SuperLiga, four MLS and four Mexican teams will meet in a group stage and knockout play in July and August. Against powers like Club América, MLS has an opportunity to win over skeptics south of the border.