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Wileman: Beckham delivers in Montreal visit

Luke Wileman
5/14/2012 11:26:22 AM
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After an hour of play in the Olympic Stadium on Saturday the flashbulbs were rampant. One of the world's most famous athletes was standing over the ball ready to take a free kick and all eyes within the crowd in Montreal were transfixed.

Step forward David Beckham. He curled the free kick around the defensive wall and into the top corner as he has done so many times during his illustrious career. For Impact fans, it was a punch to the stomach watching Beckham tie the match and ultimately deny their side a win against the reigning MLS Cup Champions, but also a moment they had been waiting for.

One of the questions I get asked most frequently regarding Major League Soccer by people outside North America is about the impact Beckham has made on the game in North America. Saturday's match provided another 60,000 reasons as to why he has helped lift MLS to a completely different level.

Montreal smashed the record attendance for a soccer match in the city, set a few weeks earlier when they played their first MLS home match against Chicago Fire. To get 120,000 fans through the doors in the space of two home matches is a remarkable achievement. However, now the task is for them to build on that success.

Speaking with Montreal Impact President Joey Saputo ahead of Saturday's match, he was understandably thrilled with the attendance, but remains fully focused on the task in hand. Without doubt, it was a great one-off occasion, but Saputo knows the true measure of success is how many of those people who came to see Beckham will now return again to watch Montreal later this season.

The impact of Beckham's presence in Montreal over the weekend wasn't just about filling the stadium; it helped lift the profile of the game throughout the city. Flicking through the local news channels on Friday night, it was impossible not to see shots of his press conference earlier in the day and the newspaper pages were filled.

Whatever your opinion on the circus that follows Beckham around – the entertainment reporter asking him to sign underwear in the pre-match press conference was a classic example – the result was a buzz created in Montreal that just isn't present when other MLS teams come to town. If that helps spike interest in the Impact and MLS, then it can only be good for the sport in this country.

On the pitch, Montreal are playing their part in trying to build interest in their club. They deserved their half time lead after a solid first half performance against the Galaxy, but couldn't hold the lead in the second half as LA pushed forward.

Former Galaxy goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts made some excellent saves in the Montreal goal, and the central defensive pairing of Nelson Rivas and Matteo Ferrari shows the potential to be one of the best in the league. Brazilian midfielder Felipe had another strong game in the centre of midfield and captain Davy Arnaud once again led by example.

Montreal sits in the middle of the pack after a third of the season, which is a creditable achievement for an expansion team. They have built a strong core of experienced players, but most importantly they have brought good characters into the club.

Head Coach Jesse Marsch said last week that Arnaud has "exceeded every expectation I had of him coming in in terms of leadership, commitment to training and this project. He's been an example to all." Luckily for Montreal, there are many others like Arnaud within their squad.

Priotities

Vancouver Whitecaps are making no secret of their desire to win their first Canadian Championship. Whitecaps Head Coach Martin Rennie even went as far as to leave key players at home for Saturday's league match in New England. The result was a 4-1 loss, and a defensive performance that looked more like the dark days of their expansion season.

As Rennie continues to build his squad in his first year with the Whitecaps, Saturday's match indicated he still has much work to do in adding depth to the defence. Vancouver's first choice backline has looked superb this year, but without Jay DeMerit and Martin Bonjour it was a different story.

The question of whether or not Rennie was right to make changes will be answered over the next two weeks as the 'Caps embark on their most important period of the season so far. The two-leg Canadian Championship final against Toronto FC starts at BC Place on Wednesday, and each game against their cross-country rivals is followed by an MLS match against Cascadia rivals Seattle and Portland respectively.

If the Whitecaps achieve their goal and qualify for the CONCACAF Champions League, Saturday won't be the last time Rennie has to dig deep into his squad during the year, but after making a solid start in MLS it would be a shame to see the 'Caps progress in other competitions hurt their chances of qualifying for the playoffs for the first time.
MLS on TSN returns on Saturday, May 19 as Vancouver Whitecaps host Seattle Sounders at 5 pm ET, 2 pm PT live on TSN.

Luke Wileman

Luke Wileman


Luke Wileman is an analyst for TSN's soccer coverage and his blog can be read on TSN.ca.

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