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Beckham's galaxy

Soccer ace's pitch has been huge hit -- will MLS buy it?

The 19-year-old who arrived for Paul Mariner's inspection was, as befitting his age, green as a shamrock.

But youth and inexperience rarely mask the quality that a teenage David Beckham brought in 1994 to Preston North End.

Otherworldly talent.

"Natural. Natural," Mariner, the New England Revolution assistant coach, recalled of the youngster's skills. "Obviously, in training, you're working on things all the time and you're going to get better. But he had a lot of natural talent."

Mariner was an assistant at Preston when Beckham landed via loan from Manchester United. And while Mariner recognized the singularity of the precocious and precious footballer, he never dreamed the soft-spoken Beckham would explode into Becks, the boldfaced global phenomenon who is arguably the most recognized athlete in the world.

"I don't think anybody could," said Mariner. "With the way his life developed, from his marriage, being the captain of Manchester United, being the captain of England -- all these things are high-profile events."

On Sunday, Mariner and the Revolution will square off against Beckham and the Los Angeles Galaxy at Gillette Stadium. Beckham, however, is not just another soccer star. He's an athlete whose career exploded in a perfect storm of athletic achievement and celebrity appeal, thrusting him onto an Everest-high peak known only to the Tigers and Michaels, the few who have transformed from boys into brands.

"We always try to find the best athletes who are good at what they do on their field and are good ambassadors for the brand," said Evan Weiner, spokesman for Adidas, a primary sponsor of Beckham and Major League Soccer. "But Beckham has become one of the most notable global athletes of our time."

"The quality was there for all to see," remembered Mariner. "Just his ability on the ball -- miles ahead technically of the other players on the club. Just his vision, first touch, everything that you see now. He's just taken it to a higher level."

Beckham, a fan of Manchester United as a lad, experienced a well-chronicled climb toward stardom with his favorite club, featuring résumé-stacking highlights that included six Premier League championships, one FA Cup title, one European Cup crown, and a career-best 16 goals in 2001-02. After a transfer to Real Madrid in 2003, Beck ham played four years for the Spanish titan and scored 15 goals.

But he made his biggest headlines while starring for the English national team, appearing in 94 international matches over a 10-year span. In 1998, Beckham drew attention for the wrong reason. During a World Cup match against Argentina, he was red-carded early in the second half of a 2-2 tie that England lost on penalties.

The goat of his country won back his followers three years later. Against Greece, the captain booted in a free kick during stoppage time that helped England qualify for the 2002 Cup.

Like other premier athletes, Beckham has gone about his business at his own tempo, seeing plays develop before opponents can react. At the heart of his game is his free-kick ability off set pieces, on which he plants his left foot awkwardly and strikes with his right, placing power, touch, and his signature bend on the ball to elude walls and goalkeepers.

Off the field, however, is where Beckham transformed from top-tier athlete to paparazzi bull's-eye. In 1999, he married Victoria Adams, better known as Posh Spice. In England, where soccer and celebrity-watching compete as national pastimes, the two worlds had collided for Beckham as he and his wife became the target of gossip columns and telephoto lenses.

This electric persona is part of the reason MLS opened its checkbook for Beckham in January, signing him to a five-year contract that could be worth $250 million.

"He has a track record that says he has celebrity and persona," said Stephen Greyser, professor of business administration at Harvard Business School. "He has his own sponsors, will have more of his own, and he may get appearance fees that will go to him. But from a league point of view, if he can drive fandom both at the venues and on television, that will bring additional sponsorship associated with higher ratings."

A soccer nation
Solely because of Beckham's expected arrival, Gillette Stadium is sold out for Sunday's match. For Los Angeles's game against Toronto FC last week, ESPN2 had a "Beckham Cam" that trained its sights on the 32-year-old, who spent the entire night on the bench wearing a suit and tie. Nearly 250,000 of Beckham's No. 23 Galaxy jerseys have been sold, making it the world's top-selling soccer uniform.

"It's a very strong indicator that his impact in the US and globally is going to continue," Weiner said of sales of the Adidas-made Beckham shirts. "We expect the numbers to continue to grow over the course of the seasons."

Beckham didn't arrive stateside merely to sell jerseys. He has stated that he wants to increase the visibility of MLS and prove to skeptics that American soccer can be a viable sport.

"What he's set out to do is raise the profile of soccer and create an American soccer nation," said Weiner. "He shares similar goals with [what] MLS and a lot of companies, including Adidas, and investors in the league are interested in doing."

Beckham's nation-building, however, can be interpreted as a wallet-stuffing money grab -- his wife is looking to launch clothing and sunglasses lines in America -- by a player who might have reached his performance peak. Beckham is no longer England's captain. Since 2001-02, his goal scoring has dropped off each season. He delayed his MLS introduction because of a sprained left ankle but made his debut last night against D.C. United.

The hope is that other international stars join him in MLS. But MLS could also be viewed as a sunset league, a Del Boca Vista where the Morty Seinfelds of the Euro leagues can spend their golden years feeding on 5 p.m. dinner specials.

At the same time, MLS is facing the danger of thick-of-their-prime Americans like former New Englander Clint Dempsey going the other way, fleeing to Europe's elite leagues.

Beckham could allay these concerns with a few goal-scoring swings of his right foot. Mariner, while jokingly hoping that Beckham's not at full fitness Sunday, is confident his former charge can still perform at a high level, feeding balls to his forwards and being a threat on set pieces.

"The question mark is how good is he going to be in 2007, 2008, and etc.," said Greyser. "Neither you nor I have the answer to that. He has the answer. If his performance on the field is excellent and he becomes part of the highlight reel of the league, not only when he walks on the field but performs, then he will be worth it. Otherwise, it will be like a comet. It will flash across the sky and then move on."

Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at fshinzawa@globe.com.

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