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Aug 19, 2007

Altidore shares the limelight with Beckham

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- In a tale of two cities for two MLS clubs heading in opposite directions, the New York Red Bulls' 5-4 win over Los Angeles was a microcosm of both teams' seasons.

On the outside of the playoff picture looking in, Los Angeles -- surrounded by the ever-present glow of cameras and the media -- walked into Giants Stadium amongst a media blitz rarely seen for soccer in this country. New York, riding high in the Eastern Conference standings, quietly took to the field to take care of business.

Perhaps the most entertaining match in MLS history, the game showcased the biggest star in MLS and perhaps the league's fastest rising one. The din in the stadium was overwhelming at certain junctures of the game -- at times, it seemed as though the Red Bulls were playing as the visitors in their own home.

In the media capital of the world, it was all Beckham. He dominated the opening minutes as only he can, every touch on the ball bringing an intriguing mixture of boos and camera flashes. His ability to break games open with a single, magical touch was on display for a franchise-record audience. The 66,237 in attendance was more than the Red Bulls have pulled in for their last five home dates combined and a new single-game record for an MLS game.

In a game that 12-year Galaxy veteran Cobi Jones termed "not quite must-win," it was a shootout of epic proportions. "I haven't been involved in a game like that since I was 9 or 10 years old," said Beckham about the high-scoring affair. "But it's great for the fans, for the people who came out tonight."

The Beckham euphoria subsided almost immediately, with Juan Pablo Angel putting the Red Bulls ahead in the fourth minute. Within moments, a swerving Beckham corner kick landing on the head of Honduran international Carlos Pavon tied the score. In the ninth minute, the tandem linked up again, with a curling free kick from the Englishman that Pavon masterfully flicked in.

Throughout the match Beckham constantly placed dangerous balls onto the path of Pavon, and linked up with midfield mate Landon Donovan for several dangerous chances. Beckham's partnership with Donovan, who scored an unassisted goal to draw Los Angeles within one goal in the 71st minute, is worth watching.

Every time he touched the ball, Beckham drew a crowd of New York players; New York midfielder Joe Vide was constantly on his back. Despite the attention and pressure, Beckham sprung the Galaxy attack several times throughout the flow of play. He showed well with his new teammates, despite only a handful of practices with the team.

Yet it was New York's pressure that helped neutralize the former English captain, keeping him further from the goal then he showed in the first half. The dangerous nature of Beckham was clearly on the mind of every New York player.

"We all see him on "SportsCenter," every day," said second-half substitute Mike Magee. "I don't want to end up as one of the top 10 plays of the days as a sidenote."

That's a point that New York coach Bruce Arena partly agreed with. Calling Beckham's status as "60-70 percent," Arena termed the relationship between Donovan and Beckham a "handful."

"Beckham delivers a great ball," Arena said. "As easy as it might seem from the stands, the skill he has to deliver the right ball, a quality ball in the right spot on set pieces is outstanding."

"I think David came through well," said Los Angeles coach Frank Yallop, referencing the injured left ankle that has limited the midfielder's ability to get on the field. "He was sore at the end."

"I was surprised to actually play 90 minutes," said Beckham about his first full match since joining the league. "I'm quite a stubborn person, both on and off the field." Yet, for all the celebration over No. 23, it was two Red Bulls players who shined the brightest. Paced by both Juan Pablo Angel and Jozy Altidore, who each scored two goals, New York dominated long stretches of the second half and attacked Joe Cannon's goal relentlessly, forcing the Galaxy keeper to make 10 saves.

"He's a dangerous player," Arena said about the teenage striker Altidore. "The physical ability and now the technical side is starting to surface for him."

Even Beckham could see the potential in the young American striker. "Yeah, he's a great player," Beckham said about Altidore. "New York has a number of great players."

Undeniably though, Beckham walked away from his New York experience in awe. Terming it a city he, "likes coming to" and repeatedly referring to the atmosphere as "great," Beckham left the game touched.

"Tonight I have to say thank you to the people who paid money," Beckham said to the fans. "They got to see a sport I consider the best in the world."

Kristian R. Dyer covers U.S. Soccer and MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He appears regularly in the New York City newspaper Metro. He can be reached for comment at KristianRDyer@yahoo.com.