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Aug 9, 2007

Beckham makes his belated MLS debut

Nothing seems easy when it comes to getting David Beckham on the field in a game that matters -- but at least it finally happened.

Despite the complicating factors of bad weather and a costly ejection for his Galaxy side, Beckham made his belated debut in an MLS match with a 72nd minute introduction Thursday night at wet RFK Stadium.

His initial appearance came after missing four Galaxy matches -- three contests in SuperLiga and one MLS match day. Beckham looked mobile enough against D.C. United despite that troublesome left ankle, although he never really sprinted and was cautious about maneuvering into traffic. He supplied a little composure and one particularly sweet pass to Landon Donovan, but the abundance of weak links around him was too much to overcome as the Galaxy fell, 1-0.

"It was a lot better tonight than it has been for a while," Beckham told ESPN's Allen Hopkins after the game. "It's difficult after eight weeks of hardly doing anything. But I'm happy to be back on the field, disappointed to be losing, but we'll have to look forward to the next game."

England manager Steve McCLaren was inside the sold-out 46,000-seat stadium, there to inspect the quality of Major League Soccer and to get the scoop from Beckham himself on the tender ankle.

Beckham began warming up as early as the 37th minute, but getting on the field would prove increasingly dicey. First the weather became uncooperative as a brief, heavy rain soaked the pitch, adding to the risk of slipping that could further irritate an injury.

Then Kyle Martino's needless tackle from behind on United's Fred resulted in a red card, which left Galaxy manager Frank Yallop with something of a tactical conundrum: should he insert a player who can't go all out with his team a goal down and a man down?

But Beckham did come on, replacing ineffective Quavas Kirk in the 72nd minute.

Kansas City and U.S. international defender Jimmy Conrad, watching from home back in the Midwest, wasn't surprised to see Beckham, even in that situation. Yallop wasn't just thinking about Thursday's game, Conrad surmised. The manager knows that Beckham needs minutes to get acquainted with teammates and reacquire his timing -- even if he's not at his very best at the moment.

"People who know the game know that's what he's working toward," Conrad said. "Everyone who knows the game understands that's part of the process. But the average fan who is just tuning in to see the celebrity, they might not understand that."

Beckham played centrally as Yallop has said all along that he would. But the Galaxy, conceding the ball away in midfield far too easily all night, struggled to feed passes his way. It was going to be difficult enough with 11 men, much less with one too few.

Columbus Crew manager Sigi Schmid said flagging connectivity isn't exactly surprising. He remembered how it took a few games for Galaxy team members back in 2004 (when Schmid was coach there) to get accustomed to playmaker Andreas Herzog.

"It took our team a little while to understand where he would be, and what they needed to do once he got the ball," Schmid said. He noted Beckham's 50-yard pass to Donovan as an example of what's to come, however.

"Those forwards have to be very ambitious and very comfortable in making runs, because Beckham has the ability to find them," Schmid said. "They have to know, 'If I make this run, he'll find me.'"

With United the better team in retaining possession, Beckham spent most of his time moving about on nominal defensive duty, leaving the hard challenges to Kevin Harmse.

Carlos Pavon wasted the Galaxy's best chance of the evening, heading wide from close range after a nifty buildup. It was probably no coincidence that Beckham had the ball on two different occasions on the possession, giving the Galaxy what it so desperately needs: a little more sophisticated movement off the ball and a little more composure and skill on the ball.

Beckham's first set-piece opportunity came in the 85th minute, a free kick from about 45 yards well towards the left touchline. His near-post service found Pavon, who was well-marked and couldn't turn the effort toward goal with any authority.

Two minutes later, Beckham's weighted ball from midfield nearly put Donovan through along the left side. United goalkeeper Troy Perkins was off his line aggressively, spilling Donovan while winning the risky challenge. Still, Beckham's pass was telling.

"It's clear that he's a good player, that he's played at a very high level," Conrad said. "And as you can see, the Galaxy needs him. ... I still think they are going to make a late push and challenge for the playoffs."

They just may if every Galaxy teammate adopts Beckham's competitive drive. The former England captain is obviously engaged in his new enterprise. From the first minutes he wore the intense face of a concerned sibling. Beckham looked somewhat irritated by the Galaxy's struggles as he sat on the bench. Later, he was animated in his frustration when Edson Buddle made a mess of a potential equalizer from six yards out.

"You don't accomplish what he's accomplished without being a tremendous competitor," Schmid said. "When you look at his face, he's not here for retirement. He's not here for a paycheck. He's here to step on the field to win games. That's not something you can hide or disguise."

And there's certainly no disguising his impact in ticket sales. Yes, Major League Soccer gets the occasional crowds of 45,000-plus, like Thursday's. But they are usually attached to international doubleheaders. Rare is the Thursday night stand-alone MLS match that can attract that level of interest.

The Galaxy plays Sunday at Gillette Stadium, where Revolution officials capped ticket sales at 32,000. Sunday's crowd will be slightly larger, due to suites that are likely to be full, too. But Revolution officials elected not to open the upper deck. At least they can be more confident now that Beckham will play.

Beckham had a real go earlier this week at Major League Soccer's foursome of artificial turf pitches. Gillette is one of them. Schmid wondered if Beckham had not tested the ankle at RFK on Thursday if he might have passed on playing Sunday, too. Now, the chances seem greater for Beckham to see some time against Steve Nicol's Revolution. Still, New England chief operating officer Brian Bilello is being cautious about what he says and expects.

"In general, where the league is right now, it's just great to see David out there," he said. "We're hopeful he'll play. But injuries can be better one day, and not better the next."

Does that mean the club has a plan in place, a preemptive PR strike that could limit the damage and assuage fans if Beckham doesn't make an appearance? Bilello said he didn't think it would be necessary.

"Most people, although they might be disappointed, understand that this is a sporting event and that he's not going to play if he's not fit to play on that day."

Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.