Last week saw the 14th anniversary of David Beckham’s arrival in Los Angeles, California to put pen to paper on a five year contract with the Los Angeles Galaxy. He was the first ever Designated Player in Major League Soccer, still in his prime at 31 of years age and arriving from another title winning season in LaLiga with Real Madrid. However, despite how profound his on the field performances and off the field hype impacted Major League Soccer and North American soccer at large, Beckham had secured a second legacy before his first one even began.
Within his contract, was an option that guaranteed Beckham the right to exercise a fixed-amount, franchise purchase trigger to own a club in Major League Soccer. In turn, even while Beckham encapsulated stadiums across North America and terrorized Major League Soccer defences, a second narrative continued to develop behind the scenes: a Beckham-owned MLS club in Florida, possibly Orlando but namely the outlandish, untapped, and previously failed, market of Miami.
The idea was as illustrious as the initial “Beckham Effect” on soccer America. Just as a truly global superstar was advertised to arrive in all his spunk, charm, and world class talent, for a then reported preposterous $250 million dollars over 5 years in the media, made front-page headlines across the globe, a franchise in one of the most globally attractive cities in the world, with all of Beckham’s connections and stature, was unrivalled by anyone in the league other than perhaps his own employers the Los Angeles Galaxy. Thereafter, Miami’s association with the league was more of a concept founded in imagination, of tabloid gossip courtesy of everyone from the Daily Mail and the Sun to the Miami Herald and MLS’s public domain itself, than reality.
The evolution from concept to reality was always going to be demanding; despite MLS commissioner Don Garber’s public expressions of frustration and ill-patience with the Beckham group to secure a stadium and begin play, Garber knew full well the problematic real estate and government challenges to establishing a proper, state of the art football club in Miami. But on January 29th, 2018, it was announced Miami would become the 25th franchise in Major League Soccer, kicking off play in 2020.
Miami’s eventual success in acquiring the site of the famous Fort Lauderdale Strikers of the North American Soccer League (NASL, 1968-1984), Lockhart Stadium, marked a paradigm shift for Miami’s rough, and at times often uncomfortably close with fatal, attempts to join Major League Soccer. But with 2020 fast approaching and no materialized deals, despite what felt like prevalent football gossip of international superstars association with the club, Miami had a plethora of executive decisions to make on reasonably short notice. To this task, I would say they, even in retrospect, made reasonably rational choices.
They had a very promising logo and decent name in Club Internacional de Fútbol Miami (Inter Miami CF), a chief business officer (CBO) in CONCACAF and MLS front office veteran Jurgen Mainka, a Sporting Director in ex-Atlanta equivalent Paul McDonough, and a somewhat underwhelming but proven manager in Latin America, Diego Alonso, previously of Monterrey in LigaMX.
However, something in this club plagued either an inability to close deals or a engagement-driven, but knowingly false, PR game. To the latter I can recognize the attractiveness of the strategy: a consistent flow of headline-making transfer gossip will guarantee an improvement in raw public discourse engagement, even if it fails to materialize in actual deals. Beckham’s own PR team performed such a stunt with the advertised “250 million dollar” move to the Galaxy back in 2007, however in that scenario the falsehoods created only profile raising benefits and no consequences.
In this case the proliferation of unrealistic expectations almost inevitably creates a expectation threshold you’ll never meet, mirrored in signings like Gonzalo Higuaín despite a carousal of transfer chatter with the likes of Luis Suárez, Sergio Agüero, and Edison Cavani. Objective of contextual difficulties, the reality to which Miami’s players struggled, rather accurately mirrors the disparity between their acquired stature and that of speculative gossip; Miami both over advertised and made poor decisions. Higuaín really struggled, 12 million dollar Rodolfo Pizzaro was reminiscent of Paul McDonough’s last bold, but ultimately underwhelming, purchase, Ezequiel Barco, lucrative 8.91 and 5.94 million dollar youngsters Matias Pellegrini and Julian Carranza were very poor for their price tag, and it turned out the acquisition of Lewis Morgan, a Scotland youth international who couldn’t get minutes for Celtic, turned out to be their Player of the Year.
This was reflected in the results and, despite ultimately winning a playoff position amidst an expanded quota, the team played poor football, suffered underwhelming contributions from their biggest and foreseeably most reliable investments, and most alarmingly weren’t demonstrating tangible progress on consistency or cohesion.
So, as of the 2020/21 winter Miami have been clearing house. Of possibly greater implication is that David Beckham will also be assuming a more active role, although not as it has turned out as the new Sporting Director, which has gone to Chris Henderson, who has headed to Florida from Seattle Sounders this morning.
Both CBO Jurgen Manika and Paul McDonough are both departing, the former in the early summer and the latter sacked this winter. Manika’s departure wasn’t entirely in the clubs hands, but McDonough likely deserved the sack. Even clubs with Miami’s financial might shouldn’t be overspending and underdelivering on young South Americans, and they certainly can’t afford to with MLS’s harsh transfer expense implication on the salary cap.
Diego Alonso was finally informed of his official sacking by the club, a not unexpected outcome after miscommunication between the parties and performance and has been replaced by the unproven Phil Neville.
From Miami’s 2020 roster, major players in terms of minutes logged and MLS experience departed; skipper Luis Robles (Retired), Lee Nguyen (Ho Chi Minh City), Juan Agudelo (Free Agent), Will Trapp (Minnesota United), and Ben Sweat (Austin FC), and more likely may follow.
However both Miami fans and spectators ought to not be discouraged, but rather reinvigorated, by the uncertainty associated with such an overhaul. A reboot is a second opportunity for Miami to deliver on its promises, to meet the lucrative expectations that have been advertised across the global press, and that demanding threshold expected from the Miami market. Miami promised globally recognizable stardom and world class talent. On the surface, they posses all the ingredients to build a globally recognizable, attractive, and competitive club. Miami’s portfolio of affluent and well-connected owners, a 25,000 seater state of the art stadium facility and surrounding entertainment complex, the draw of Miami as an international market, and the competitive lower income taxes of Florida to sign players vs the tax brackets of other states and European markets.,
The market relevance of Inter Miami within Miami-Dade County and the South Florida market occupies an important thoroughfare for the growth of the game in North America and opportunity for tangible domestic engagement of Latino-Americans with Major League Soccer — previously only undeniably visible with Los Angeles FC. If any club has the potential to elevate the profile of Major League Soccer, not just competitively but through pop culture relevance, it’s Miami. There’s no reason that Beckham & Co. shouldn’t be able to build a super club, one with a consistent important and export carousal of South American wonder kids (Young DPs), of global superstars in their prime (DPs), and of aging stars and serviceable players (TAM).
Miami will be looking forward to 2022 with the projected opening of their permanent home venue, Miami Freedom Park, and surrounding training and entertainment complex. The current rebuild will likely have eyes for a big splash in 2022 and facilitate 2021 to lay base pieces. Whether Beckham is knowledgeable, either himself or through consultation, on how to build a successful MLS team is yet to be determined. The balance between building what you know, what the market demands, and what will actually work is a league as unique as Major League Soccer is absolutely a tricky one.
The appointment of Neville, former Manchester United and England teammate and close friend of Beckham, as manager, has all the signs of a disastrous choice. Players from the Argentine and Mexican leagues have the best track record of acclamation into Major League Soccer, and the league policy to include transfer fees into cap hits, a ridiculously misguided policy to their recent “selling league” aspirations, makes South Americans the most desirable imports given lower transfer fees and salaries compared with importing from broadcast-capital inflated European salaries. In contrast, Neville has never played or managed outside England, doesn’t to my knowledge speak Spanish, and surely lacks even greater knowledge of Major League Soccer and football on this side of the pond than Beckham himself — former Galaxy teammates Robbie Keane or Stevie Gerrard would have been better choices, possessing at least an understanding of the league.
Neville is additionally neither an experienced nor proven manager, and lacks the name-recognizability or stature to prompt intrigue from either side of the Atlantic. Miami ought to have followed the precedent set by Los Angeles FC and Atlanta United in brand-building through a primary focus on Latin-American players and South American football tactics, with the flare of Miami and global superstars as the icing on the cake rather than the filling. Miami is the “Gateway to the Americas”; indeed reflecting the demographics and culture of the Miami market in their footballing philosophy will in this case be both competitive and conducive to market engagement and popularity.
However, whether fans of the club or spectators, the Miami ownership’s decision to overhaul the club this winter ought to be viewed as a promising sign of the club’s future. Miami has big expectations to live up to, and the window for building a lasting presence in Major League Soccer is a short one.
If you look at the truly popular clubs in the league, with fanbases that have demonstrated high engagement and consistency, like Seattle, Atlanta, and LAFC, they have all demonstrated both a high level of ambition and tangible success in their early years. Bringing in Henderson from the Sounders may be a nod to their recognition of that fact and their desire to try and bring some of that Seattle success to Miami.
While Miami’s 2020 might be summed up as a lot of overpromising and underdelivering, both historically and even more so given the increasing inequality within the league, Miami’s demonstration of ambitiousness is an important marker for the prospective realization of what has been anticipated for over a decade; the lucrative, star-studded Beckham MLS project in Miami.