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MLS's New Spring Idea: Beckham Bends It In Tucson

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For Major League Soccer, spring training has meant playing exhibition games all over the continent. Until now.

MLS now wants to emulate baseball — much to the delight of fans in Tucson, Ariz., a city that Major League Baseball left behind.

The defending MLS champions, the L.A. Galaxy, are in Tucson with teams from New York, New England and Salt Lake. They're playing in a two-week tournament called the Desert Diamond Cup.

"It's been really good — you know, the reaction to myself, to the rest of the players," says the Galaxy's David Beckham. "There's an excitement in the town and, you know, that's good to see."

Of course, when you're David Beckham — the league's best-known player and an international sex symbol — you're probably going to excite people wherever you go.

After last Saturday's game against Real Salt Lake, Beckham stayed on the field for a half-hour, signing autographs and revealing his tattooed torso when he took off his jersey and gave it to a fan.

Beckham says he's glad to give up a grueling travel schedule for a few weeks. "You're just in one place, concentrating, resting and working hard as well," he says.

Desert Diamond Demand

By next year, Major League Soccer wants to have all 19 of its teams doing spring training in a couple of places rather than all over, says league Vice President Nelson Rodriguez.

"We'd like to believe that over time, we could have our successful version of Grapefruit, Cactus [MLB spring training leagues] — somewhere East Coast-based and West Cost-based that is a recurring situation," he says.

Rodriguez says that would give the teams competition, give fans a destination and give the media one place to come for coverage. Soccer may be the world's most popular sport, but in the United States, it can still use any help it can get for public attention.

Tucson seems like a great location: It's warm and the facilities are already here. The soccer teams are working out on fields and in clubhouses that were built for baseball's Chicago White Sox and Arizona Diamondbacks.

But after 60 years of hosting spring training, Tucson was jilted by its last Major League Baseball team in 2010 in favor of the Phoenix area, a couple of hours north.

"We were left with a fantastic facility and a lot of questions," says Greg Foster, an organizer of the Desert Diamond tournament.

The tournament began last year, when out of nowhere, MLS's Sporting Kansas City approached him and his partners about playing in Tucson with the New York Red Bulls. It was a huge success — with fans coming from Arizona and Mexico. Four more teams committed to training and playing in the tournament this year.

"And we've got teams that are already making reservations for next year," Foster says. "Teams that aren't here this year. Teams that we had to leave off the list for coming to Tucson, because we didn't have enough fields."

A Permanent Conversion?

There are actually a dozen practice fields, plus an 11,000-seat stadium.

But the fields are baseball fields. The pitcher's mounds have been leveled and the infield dirt has temporarily been replaced with turf. That's not going to be enough to keep Major League Soccer in Tucson.

The league says it needs some permanent soccer fields.

And that could happen if fans like Molly Waggoner keep showing up for the games. "I am coming to all the matches," she says.

Then, local officials say, they're open to permanently converting fields. For Waggoner, soccer every year would be even better than spring training.

"It's so much better than baseball ... for so many reasons," she says. "But it's so good for Tucson."

Baseball spring training is gone, but the local Sports and Tourism Authority still has a baseball in its logo. Maybe it's time to add a soccer ball.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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