IT WAS THE KIND of signing that generated the publicity soccer craves in the United States.

The world's most famous futbol player - not necessarily the best but most famous - was coming to America.

That was the story line three decades ago when Pelé, "O Rei do Futbol," left his longtime club team, Santos FC in Brazil, to join the New York Cosmos, of the North American Soccer League.

If that sounds a lot like the splash David Beckham made in January when he announced he was leaving Real Madrid at the end of his contract in July to join the Los Angeles Galaxy, of Major League Soccer, in July, it's because it's almost the same story.

For its own sake, however, MLS had better hope that is where the similarities end.

While Pelé's arrival in New York in 1975 launched the Cosmos into superstardom, it actually did little for the NASL's overall growth. In reality, it gave birth to the circumstances that ultimately killed the league.

Other clubs without the financial footing of the Cosmos tried to match New York's star-studded roster and began overpaying for recognizable international players. That plunged the league into financial chaos.

Less than a decade after Pelé arrived, the NASL was defunct.

I bring up these old wounds because MLS appears to be flirting with the same scenario that doomed the NASL.

According to a salary list posted by the MLS Players Association on Friday, Beckham, with a base salary of $5.5 million and guaranteed compensation of $6.5 million, will be paid 50 times more than the average salary in the league.

Mexican striker Cuauhtemoc Blanco, of the Chicago Fire, who, like Beckham, will not play an MLS game until summer, has guaranteed money of $2.66 million - nearly 20 times more than the average guaranteed salary of $115,478.

This looks like the NASL all over again.

No matter how popular Beckham is, it's hard to believe one player can make so much difference that his base salary should be higher than other teams' total payroll. Still, the issue isn't so much what Beckham is getting paid, but what the other MLS teams might do to keep up with the Galaxy.

MLS is a single-entity system, owning all player contracts. It has a budget of about $2 million per team for player salaries.

But this year, the league instituted a designated player rule, which enables clubs to sign one player without salary restrictions. The league is obliged to pick up only the first $400,000, with the individual club responsible for the rest.

Thus far, only the Galaxy, Chicago Fire and the New York Red Bulls have taken advantage of the new designated player rule. It's a huge gamble – based more on a player's name recognition than his talent.

If Beckham, dropped from England's national team after World Cup 2006, were still considered an elite international player, Real Madrid wouldn't let him out of Europe.

His signing will not dramatically increase the quality of play in MLS.

Such top young American players as DaMarcus Beasley, Michael Bradley, Philadelphia's Bobby Convey, Tim Howard and Oguchi Onyewu are playing in European Leagues instead of MLS because the competition is much better. No disrespect intended, but if an MLS player is good enough to star in Europe, he is playing in Europe.

Like Beckham, who just turned 32, the three other players signed under the designated player rule – Blanco, 34, former USA captain Claudio Reyna, 33, and Colombian striker Juan Pablo Angel, 31 - have used up most of their best years.

Plenty of former international heavyweights out there wouldn't mind spending their twilight years playing in America. From a marketing standpoint, it's easy to see MLS teams being tempted to fulfill that wish.

The problem is that while those players might come cheap, compared with what they are used to making, the money it would take to bring them into MLS would cause havoc with the salary structure.

Before the "Fab Four" inked their deals, the highest-paid MLS player was Galaxy striker Landon Donovan, a 25-year-old veteran of two U.S. World Cup teams in his seventh MLS season. Donovan's base salary is $900,000.

Most MLS teams cannot afford million-dollar salaries.

But in an effort to keep up with Los Angeles, Chicago and New York, which have the three highest payrolls, other teams might start extending themselves financially to reach for a marquee name.

That's what happened in the NASL.

If MLS isn't careful, the sequel to "Bend It Like Beckham" might be called "Ended by Beckham." *

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