All it took was one goal from David Beckham to remind us just how special he is, one majestic free kick to breathe life back into a media circus that was in danger of dying out before reaching the media capital of the world.
Now, instead of ditching their tickets to Saturday's Los Angeles Galaxy-New York Red Bulls game at Giants Stadium (7:30 p.m. ET) faster than lead paint-covered toys, New York area soccer fans are looking for as many tickets as they can get. What so many circled as a can't-miss match back when the Galaxy's schedule was released months ago is once again the hottest ticket in town. It is a turnaround few could have predicted just five days ago.
When Beckham followed his comments last week about not wanting to play on artificial turf by not even dressing last Sunday for the Galaxy's 1-0 loss to the New England Revolution, the buzz about his lone trip to Giants Stadium began fading faster than Britney Spears' sanity. His left ankle was too injured, and any hopes of seeing Beckham work his magic in New York looked bleak.
That was before Beckham mustered his magic on Wednesday. He suited up, slapped on the captain's armband, entered the Galaxy starting lineup, laughed when a hard tackle was thrown at him, scored a goal, assisted on a second goal and walked off the field without a limp or the aid of a stretcher. Fans at the Home Depot Center applauded him, MLS and Galaxy officials breathed a sigh of relief, and New York area soccer fans dusted off their plans for Saturday.
What can we expect this weekend at Giants Stadium? A crowd that could make the match nearly a sellout by kickoff (pre-sale for the game had surpassed 60,000 tickets by Thursday evening). That crowd, which will be the largest for a soccer game at Giants Stadium (official seating capacity is 80,242) this year, should help set the stage for an intense match. On one side, you will have the Red Bulls, a talent-laden home team eager to impress all the fans in attendance who previously hadn't bothered to come see them. On the other side, you will have the Galaxy, a travel-weary team that has enough talent and veterans to muster a good showing, and that has a star in Beckham, who has shown a penchant for delivering in these exact kind of dramatic moments throughout his career.
Can Beckham really have anything left just three days after playing his first significant minutes in two months and after traveling cross-country for the second time in five days? You wouldn't think so, but sources say he is set to play significant minutes Saturday, and Red Bulls coach Bruce Arena went so far as to say he thinks Beckham will start.
So what exactly has happened with Beckham? How has he gone from too injured to even put on a uniform five days ago, to preparing to start in his second game in four days, on turf no less? Call it careful planning on the part of Beckham, who surely is considering the appointment he has with the English national team next week.
Beckham is set to travel to London to play for England in a friendly against Germany. It is a match that could determine whether Beckham remains in England coach Steve McLaren's Euro 2008 qualifying plans. Beckham believes he deserves to still be in those plans, and he will do everything he can to prove it.
That isn't to suggest that Beckham isn't also motivated by a desire to start delivering on his mega-contract with the Galaxy. It is difficult to question his willingness to honor a contract after how he handled his situation at Real Madrid last winter. Real Madrid tried to cast him off like trash, but rather than play along, Beckham kept practicing hard until Madrid coach Fabio Capello had no choice but to play him. One Spanish title later, Beckham helped show us that there is substance to go with the style.
If you're wondering how it is Beckham can fill Giants Stadium, it should be noted that the crowd Saturday won't be made up solely of fans clad in No. 23 Galaxy jerseys. The near sellout also is a product of a summer devoid of the high-profile soccer matches that had become an annual rite of summer at Giants Stadium. Yes, the Gold Cup drew some good-sized crowds to watch Mexico and Honduras play, but those games didn't appeal to all area soccer fans.
Barcelona, Manchester United, Real Madrid and the English national team all had played at the Meadowlands in the previous four years, drawing fans in bunches, but there were no such marquee events this summer. Red Bull attempted to plan a tournament featuring the likes of Manchester United and Barcelona, but that didn't get very far.
This left many fans in New York and New Jersey with some extra spending money and a real hunger for an event that celebrates the sport they love. Beckham's visit to Giants Stadium fits that bill, and now, tens of thousands of soccer fans who normally wouldn't bother to attend an MLS match will take a seat and watch.
The best part about Saturday's spectacle is that while Beckham is without question the headliner of the show, he won't be the only marquee attraction on display. The match will include the league's best striker (Juan Pablo Angel), best young player (Jozy Altidore) and best American player (Landon Donovan). The Red Bulls will be especially motivated to perform well, given the fact that they will see a crowd four times larger than any they have seen at Giants Stadium all year. They know that an entertaining performance could lead some of those newcomers to stick around well after the Beckham circus leaves town.
Beckham's inaugural tour of the United States still has plenty of other stops, including Colorado, Kansas City, Columbus and Chicago, but no stop will be as important or as high-profile as this weekend's visit to New York. The stage is set for Beckham to show the masses that his arrival in MLS is worthy of all the hype that has surrounded it.
Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He is a writer and columnist for the Herald News (N.J.) and writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.