By Simon Evans
MIAMI (Reuters) - David Beckham's impact on soccer always went well beyond his performances on the field and nowhere was that more evident than in the United States where he became the sport's first household name since Pele.
Beckham's two Major League Soccer titles are unlikely to feature near the top of his career achievements but he was brought to L.A. Galaxy from Real Madrid in 2007 on a $6 million a year deal for a much bigger task.
The former England midfielder was charged with helping popularize soccer - and more specifically MLS - in a country where the game has traditionally struggled to get mainstream attention.
Across MLS, the consensus is that Beckham, who played with the Galaxy until last December, did just that.
The former Manchester United player appeared on popular late night talk shows, in the pages of glossy magazines and broke into sports media empires normally the preserve of NFL and NBA stars.
His former Galaxy team mate Landon Donovan felt the 'Beckham effect' more than most.
"I obviously had a lot of interaction with him personally and he greatly helped my career and the success of our team but on a bigger scale, it's what he's meant for the game of soccer generally in the world and specifically what he's meant for the game of soccer here in America and our team," Donovan told Reuters on Thursday.
"Before David came and someone walked down the street and you said 'I played for LA Galaxy, they would say who's that? And after David left, if you say you play for LA Galaxy, people say: 'that's amazing'.
"The level of awareness he has brought has been priceless for us, and we're very proud to have spent a few years with him," added Donovan.
Brazilian Pele with the New York Cosmos led an impressive but short-lived burst of attention for the game in the old North American Soccer League (NASL) in the 1970's but after that league collapsed, the game struggled until MLS began in 1996.
Since 2006, the league has expanded from 12 teams to 19 and average attendance grew by more than 3,000 during the Beckham era with teams investing in new purpose built soccer stadiums, rather than playing, as Pele was forced to, in huge NFL arenas often with artificial turf.
Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena said he had no doubts Beckham had given a major boost to the league and to his club in particular.
"The measurement is pretty clear from 2007 on - how the league has grown, with the number of franchises, how attendance has grown, how the league has been recognized around the world," he said.
"Locally the Galaxy have grown our brand, we have won championships, what more can you say? Those are pretty impressive credentials for anyone," added the former U.S. national team coach.
Not everyone was impressed with Beckham, particularly in the early part of his time in MLS when, seeking to prolong his England career, he skipped Galaxy games to play on loan with AC Milan in Italy.
Those moves led to angry protests against him from some Galaxy fans and plenty of criticism from the soccer media in the States but winning titles in both his last two seasons ensured he bowed out hailed as a success.
Beckham may yet have further involvement with MLS given that his contract with the league included an option on a future, 'expansion' team.
In the past the Englishman has always said he intends to exercise that option but a spokesman for the player said it was too early to say whether he would now look to create a club.
But even if Beckham's chooses to focus on his various 'ambassador' roles internationally rather than turn his hand to MLS club ownership, he will go down as a key figure in the growth of the global game in the States.
(Writing by Simon Evans, additional reporting by Julian Linden in New York; editing by Martyn Herman)