David Beckham could always deliver the sublime, courtesy of those signature free kicks.
Now Beckham is officially supplying the surreal, courtesy of perhaps the most celebrated night of soccer ever seen in our land.
What a mad scene at the Home Depot Center, all at once an exercise in patience (due to that uncooperative left ankle) and a three-ring circus of traps, passes and paparazzi. Major League Soccer officially began cashing in on the nationally televised Beckham ballyhoo Saturday. Even if his 12 minutes on the field were mostly uneventful, the night was certainly unforgettable.
Beckham's long-awaited Galaxy debut in the 1-0 loss to Chelsea was not so much a soccer match but a unique amalgamation: one part Hollywood movie premier, one part media overkill and one part actual soccer, all stirred into a cult of personality porridge and topped by a dash of utter bedlam.
Oh, and let's not forget about the near calamity! The anonymous Steve Sidwell, of all people, almost exposed the folly of it all. The absolute worst-case scenario nearly unfolded 40 yards from Chelsea's goal when Sidwell's hard challenge sent Becks tumbling. Briefly, the overflow crowd was breathless and Galaxy officials were surely regretting their decision the hobbled Englishman. They had bowed to (admittedly tremendous) pressure from sponsors, fans and TV to expose a vulnerable athlete, one who obviously would have remained on the shelf in every other circumstance.
But they knew Beckham alone made this midsummer friendly a red-carpet-worthy event. The pretty and important visitors included Arnold Schwarzenegger, Katie Holmes, Wayne Gretzky, Kevin Garnett and Jennifer Love Hewitt; they attracted ample paparazzi.
Paparazzi? At an MLS stadium? Really?
"It is Hollywood, and at the end of the day, it is a media-driven world, certainly out in L.A.," said Houston Dynamo general manager Oliver Luck, who broke away from a family gathering to catch the broadcast. "It's great that folks like that come out. Hopefully, it's not the last time they'll be out for a game."
• Becks banged up
• Beckham debut
He suspects that less famous ticket buyers will follow. How many? How often? Luck says that's impossible for anybody to say at this point. They will certainly appear in greater numbers if the globe's most notorious appendage will get with the program.
For the record: Major League Soccer's $250 million man was introduced as a substitute for Alan Gordon in the 78th minute. (Gordon instantly enshrined himself as the very envy of so many American women for his chummy butt slap on Becks as they exchanged places at midfield.)
American soccer could finally exhale: More than six months after his signing was announced, Beckham was on the field, outfitted majestically in the Galaxy's recently redesigned jersey.
On his first opportunity, the former captain of England's national team couldn't spin out of close quarters fast enough and coughed up possession. But 30 seconds later, No. 23 drove the kind of ball that everyone will expect regularly, crushing a clinically accurate 60-yard pass at Quavas Kirk.
Nothing much else occurred until he went tumbling like a rag doll. At least something was happening -- more than we could say for much of the evening. Most often repeated phrase from the three-man announcing booth: "No Beckham yet." Most often repeated shot from 19 ESPN cameras: Beckham leaning forward, casting an interested eye toward the field.
On that point, credit Beckham for being engaged. He could have easily been above the moment. It was just a friendly, after all, barely worthy of tying his shoes for a man who has bent it like himself in three World Cups. Beckham's eyes widened for the occasional Galaxy scoring opportunity. And he raised a hand a time or two in sideline appeal for fouls on the L.A. Herbalifers.
Those little displays of impassioned solidarity are important, said FC Dallas manager Steve Morrow, who watched the match at home with his kids.
"Just from that little thing, you can see he's very much a team player," Morrow said. "Getting right into it like that with teammates, that's important."
Morrow also noticed an amplified intensity within the Galaxy's lineup. Urgency and mettle have been sorely lacking as the team stumbled meekly through its first dozen matches. The reappearance of a little determination is critical after the Galaxy -- and by extension, MLS -- were absolutely trashed in the world media for an impotent performance five nights earlier against Mexican side Tigres.
One thing we learned Saturday: The quality of matches with Beckham around, at least for his first tour of MLS stadiums, may rise well above the MLS norm. Los Angeles didn't get completely overrun by a vastly superior Chelsea side, mostly because the Galaxy appeared to feed off the energy of the night.
Crowds promise to be substantial at every stop, and you can expect Galaxy opposition to similarly play off the energy. So says Kansas City Wizards defender Nick Garcia, who watched what he playfully termed "the circus" from his home.
"When we play them in Arrowhead later this year, in front of 30,000 fans instead of the usual 14,000 or 15,000, it's going to make a huge difference," he said late Saturday night. "So it's going to be good for old fans, good for new fans, and good for potential fans."
The match itself Saturday? About what you'd expect. Even raw, plainly in preseason form, Chelsea was faster of thought and swifter of foot. The fashionable West London side could have led by two or three goals at the half if not for still-on-vacation shooting by Frank Lampard, Salomon Kalou, Didier Drogba and others.
There were a couple of decent performances in the Galaxy midfield, although the game looked a little too fast for Cobi Jones. Kelly Gray's passing was worthwhile, and Kyle Martino contributed some bite.
But that defense. Oy! Center back Ty Harden may develop into a good defender under Abel Xavier's tutelage. But Harden's ability to read the game is quite raw. On the right, Troy Roberts was repeatedly exposed.
The Galaxy did manage a pair of primo scoring opportunities. Martino missed wide on a fleeting header at the far post, and Landon Donovan blew a gift of an unmarked opportunity from right in front of goal. (Shouted stunned analyst Eric Wynalda: "Oh, Lord!")
Chelsea couldn't score until after the break, when John Terry struck. Maybe you missed it. Plenty of people did, too. Further evidence of the oddity of Project Beckham: American media at large has long lamented soccer's allegedly prosaic rate of scoring. But on this night SportsCenter's lengthy package of highlights and comments from the match failed to show the only goal!
Now that makes it truly a strange night in American soccer and surely an unequivocal one.
Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.