Whatever David Beckham is -- soccer icon, husband of Posh Spice, global marketing brand, free-kicking metrosexual -- he will not arrive in the US this week as an intended savior.
"I don't want anybody to think Beckham will save soccer in America; it doesn't need to be saved," said Don Garber, the commissioner of Major League Soccer (MLS), the top professional league in the US. "Soccer is doing just fine. Beckham will help it do a little better."
When Beckham, 32, joins the Los Angeles Galaxy and is formally introduced at a news conference on Friday -- having signed a contract worth at least US$5.5 million a year and potentially worth US$250 million over five years in marketing and profit-sharing deals -- he will bring unprecedented buzz and credibility to a league that has grown by small, careful steps and not giant, reckless leaps.
The question that has yet to be answered is whether Beckham's presence will have a shooting star's bright but quickly fading arc, as Pele's did in the 1970s in the North American Soccer League, which went bankrupt.
Or will Beckham's charisma provide sustaining momentum until the next soccer superstar arrives, the way Magic Johnson and Larry Bird reinvigorated the NBA in the 1980s and prepared the way for Michael Jordan's ascendancy?
"What soccer strives for in this country is acceptance in the mainstream," said Sunil Gulati, president of the US Soccer Federation. "No doubt David Beckham's arrival for a period of time makes it mainstream. The question is, can it be part of the cultural fabric as we go forward? This will help. But I don't think one player, one event, can do it."
Soccer officials said that the US might have to win the World Cup before the sport entered the mainstream at home. Still, there could not be a more inviting time for Beckham to arrive and for US soccer to be able to capitalize on his skill and celebrity.
Beckham's career, which was fading after a disappointing World Cup last year, has been rejuvenated. He won a La Liga title in Spain with Real Madrid last month and he has returned to the fold of England's national team, where he formerly was the captain. Even the career of his pop-star wife, Victoria Adams, has gained a lift with an announced reunion of the Spice Girls.
Soccer, while not enjoying the consuming interest that it has around the world, has seemingly never been more popular in the US. It has arrived -- if not by a long-anticipated revolution, then by slow, steady, stealthy growth.
The final of last month's Gold Cup, a regional tournament that featured the US and Mexico in the championship game, drew 40 percent more television households than did the concluding game of the NHL's Stanley Cup finals.
The combined US television audience for the final of the last year's World Cup on ABC and Spanish-language Univision was 16.9 million viewers, compared with an average audience of 15.8 million viewers for last year's World Series on Fox.
Soccer has become a staple of autumn weekends in suburbia. The Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association said that 14.5 million people in the US played soccer last year and two-thirds of them were younger than 18.
Given the increasing Hispanic influence in this country and the viewing choices available with three cable networks devoted exclusively to soccer, "we can't expect the 18-to-35-white male to be the sole metric for sports on television," said David Carter, the executive director of the Sports Business Institute at the University of Southern California. "The interest in soccer on a global basis is clearly penetrating the domestic market."