In 1975, when an aging Pele joined the New York Cosmos of the defunct North American Soccer League there were similar thoughts. When Major League Soccer was formed more than a decade ago, it was asked if soccer could finally succeed here. And when the Americans stormed into the last eight of the 2002 World Cup, it was thought perhaps soccer had been saved at last, only to die again when they were eliminated last summer.
But let us stop all this nonsense. Soccer does not need a savior in this country. And perhaps the first thing the marketing and PR folks at Major League Soccer should do is take a look back just a few years at the mess they made of wunderkind Freddy Adu's introduction to the league.
Adu, 14 at the time and the youngest player in the history of American sports, was greeted with similarly absurd headlines. His first game was televised nationally on ABC, a game in which he started on the bench and made an appearance only for the final half hour, which should have surprised no one yet outraged everyone who had never watched a game before. A couple of weeks later those viewers returned to not caring.
The lesson here for the suits in the league office is that these ridiculous expectations help no one. Beckham will arrive and he will be a very good player in a league that has improved a good deal in a decade but is still about the quality of the division below the English Premiership. He will score goals, some of them spectacular, yet he will not convert the masses. He will sell tickets, especially on his first tour around the country. And he will sell millions of shirts in faraway places like China and Thailand. The league does not need to work very hard for this to happen.
What they should instead focus on is this: convincing the people already interested in the game that this is a league worth watching. It is often forgotten by ESPN and sportswriters that millions of Americans follow the game, albeit in countries to the south or east. They should take this quest seriously, for this is where their future lies, long after Becks has hung up his boots.
If the league can use Beckham's presence as a beginning to this - creating positive atmospheres in their new soccer-specific stadiums, continuing to raise the level of play, and creating some passion within the fan base - then they are on to something, no matter how many mainstream sportswriters dub his signing a failure when he fails to score 821 goals next season.