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Aug 16, 2007

Beckham takes captain's armband to great effect

LOS ANGELES -- The Beckham Era in Los Angeles began in earnest on Wednesday night during the SuperLiga semifinal at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif. Up to that point, most of the fuss about the famous player had been flash and fluff and little substance. With his injured ankle limiting his performances, a simple fact about the midfielder had nearly been forgotten -- Beckham can really play.

In the 27th minute of Wednesday's match, Beckham blasted one of his patented bending free kicks, decimating not only the D.C. United defense but also the doubts and naysayers who had hounded him these past few weeks.

It was an especially impressive goal considering that Beckham had not taken a free kick in weeks, even during training.

Beckham's first start for the Galaxy was less of a surprise than the fact that he stepped onto the field wearing the captain's armband. It had previously been worn by Galaxy star Landon Donovan, and midseason captaincy changes are generally rare.

Donovan initiated the move, though it had Galaxy coach Frank Yallop's approval.

"Landon and David had a chat on Tuesday," said Yallop. "[Landon] wanted him to have that role."

The change was a no-brainer, according to Donovan.

"I'm not stupid," Donovan said. "[Beckham has] been a captain for England, one of the better teams in the world. For me, it's not as important to wear the armband. I'm going to play the same way and act the same way towards guys whether I have that or not. I think it made him immediately part of the team in a real sense, not just on the field. I think guys looked at him differently, and he could say things to guys differently. I told him that if he was ready for it, I thought it was appropriate that he wear it and that I thought it would help us right now."

Donovan's request seemed to both surprise and please the English international.

"I'm very honored that he felt the need to give me the armband and that he felt it would lift the team," Beckham said.

Indeed, although the Galaxy were coming off a stint of road games that had many players weary, the team seemed far more organized and purposeful. Donovan noted that Beckham's guidance throughout the match was vocal and constant.

"He's a leader on the field and brings a lot out of everybody, including myself," Donovan said. "When he's out there, he's so competitive. 'Edson, your ball, win it! Abel, your ball, win it!' He likes to compete, he likes to win. If that's him at who-knows-what-percent of his real self, I can't wait until he's fully fit and his ankle is fully healthy."

Indeed, what has often gotten lost in the griping about how little Beckham has played is that he has begun his campaign in America injured. It would be impossible for any player to impress on the field when he's unable to perform.

Beckham is the sort of player who is extremely effective in a certain context. When the whistle blew to give the Galaxy a free kick just outside the box, many in the crowd rose, half-expecting the goal that followed. Beckham himself did not doubt that he could deliver.

After all, a player who had buried similar shots in World Cups and other pressure-packed situations could not be too nervous about his first real chance to establish his dominance as a new player in MLS.

"As soon as the free kick was given -- I don't want to sound too confident -- but I felt I was going to score," Beckham said of the set piece. "It might sound easy to say it after I've scored, but that's the feeling I actually had."

It was a chance for the others present, both spectators and teammates, to finally see firsthand the best of Beckham.

Donovan had lined up behind the wall that Beckham's free kick breached, and he followed the trajectory of the ball into the side netting.

"It was something special," Donovan said. "We all watch on TV, and think, 'They [Beckham's free kicks] can't be that good.' I turned around and thought, 'Holy Jesus! You've got to be kidding me. Unbelievable.'"

Behaving as a true leader does, Beckham did not dwell on his own accomplishments, speaking instead of the collective strength of the group he now captains.

"It was a great team performance tonight," Beckham said of the victory over a D.C. squad the Galaxy had meekly surrendered to in league play only a week before. "We showed a lot of character to play like we did. I didn't expect to last an hour, but it felt great after 10 minutes into the game. My confidence grew."

After all the hype and criticism, with a balky ankle finally recuperating, Beckham and the Galaxy were able to put other distractions aside and take care of business together. The reams of negative press may have already taken a considerable toll, with scads of empty seats in the stands for the SuperLiga match. With Beckham improving daily, fans may perhaps be wooed again.

Yet Beckham's role as a soccer ambassador has taken an obvious backseat to his new responsibility as Galaxy captain.

"I knew once on the pitch that I can play well and help the team," he said, "and that's all that was on my mind tonight -- helping the team and helping get us into the final and get our season on the way. That was the most important thing for me."

Andrea Canales covers MLS and women's college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She also writes for soccer365.com and contributes to a blog, Sideline Views. She can be contacted at soccercanales@yahoo.com.