David Beckham let everyone know that he would not be playing for the Los Angeles Galaxy against the New England Revolution Sunday. You could tell by Beckham's body language when he trained on the FieldTurf at Gillette Stadium the previous day. And Beckham virtually confirmed his intentions during a news conference. But nothing had been announced, and the capacity crowd of 35,000-plus fully expected Beckham to at least make a cameo appearance.
So, when Beckham's profile appeared on the scoreboard television, the boos followed.
"I felt bad for him, he looked disappointed when he heard that," said Joe-Max Moore, a former U.S. national team star who played against Beckham in England. "You know he wanted to play."
The combination of a 21-minute stint against D.C. United, the flight to Boston and just the thought of running around on a hard surface discouraged Beckham. That also seemed to discourage Abel Xavier, who was not even on the injured list, but neither participated in the Galaxy training session Saturday nor in the game. It is not completely coincidental that Beckham missed two of three games on this Galaxy road trip, both matches on synthetic surfaces -- in Toronto and Foxboro.
Gillette Stadium has the most advanced version of FieldTurf. Aesthetically, the surface is a major improvement on the ripped-up grass field which became the victim of concerts, a film set, NFL games, and the weather. As Revolution coach Steve Nicol said, the Gillette FieldTurf is a much better playing surface than others, but "there is no give in it. Grass is still the best surface."
"I've trained on it and it's on my academy pitches in London but I've never played on a synthetic pitch," Beckham said the day before the game. "This one is better than Toronto's field. It's difficult but it's something we have to deal with. It's part of the MLS and we have to come to terms with it and I'm sure it will be fine."
The younger the player, the better they can adapt to artificial turf. But if aging -- even slightly aging -- stars are to be imported by the MLS, the question of playing surfaces will have to be addressed.
Former MetroStar Youri Djorkaeff did not complain publicly about the Giants Stadium turf. But Djorkaeff privately noted his dissatisfaction.
In the Western Conference, where most of the Galaxy's games will be played, Beckham and Xavier will have to worry only about playing at Real Salt Lake. The problem is in the Eastern Conference, because of the fields of the Revolution, Red Bulls and FC Toronto. Real Salt Lake and the Red Bulls will have their own grass-field stadia by 2009. And the playing surface should have a positive effect when they recruit players. There is not enough evidence to condemn the FieldTurf, which is a great advancement from the AstroTurf which plagued sports in America for years. But there is, and never will be, evidence that FieldTurf extends careers of soccer players. Veteran players, and those returning from injuries, are likely to continue shying away from it.
The crowd for the Revolution-Galaxy game had a right to be disappointed by Beckham's absence. But in all professional sporting endeavors there is caveat emptor. Buyers simply must beware of the possibility of injury and even suspension, which are as much a part of the game as bending free kicks.
The bottom line about Beckham is that he definitely wants to play. He is about defeating opponents, not defrauding customers. The Galaxy's next match will be the SuperLiga semifinal against D.C. United at The Home Depot Center Wednesday, and there is an excellent chance Beckham will be recovered by then. But, after another cross-country flight to New York, it is less likely Beckham will want to step onto the football-lined turf at Giants Stadium for Saturday's match against the Red Bulls.
Frank Dell'Apa is a soccer columnist for The Boston Globe and ESPN.