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Aug 19, 2007

Beckham's presence illuminates the MLS field

Thank goodness the scourge of the terrible turf and David Beckham's rascal of an ankle didn't conspire to ruin a festive and unforgettable night at Giants Stadium. This is precisely why the Galaxy, with Major League Soccer's blessing, paid such a fabulous price for one man.

Beckham rose above his disdain for fake grass Saturday to last the entire 90-plus minutes against Red Bull New York, demonstrating once and for all how everything is magnified when he steps on the field.

The canvas is just brighter when Becks is around. The good players look even better. The bad ones look worse. The ordinary ones shrink further into the backdrop.

The league's consistently inconsistent refereeing appears even more wobbly when illuminated by the Beckham factor. The impact of coaching decisions is amplified. But mostly, the collective night rises immeasurably above a regular ol' Saturday in Major League Soccer.

The best evidence lies in the result: Red Bulls 5, Los Angeles Galaxy 4. This was the first MLS match this season -- and only the 10th in league history -- blessed with nine goals.

Other players around the league noticed, and couldn't help but be enlivened themselves by the frenzy.

"It really sounded brilliant, the whole atmosphere," said Revolution midfielder Andy Dorman, who watched with a few teammates in Kansas City, where they will play Sunday. "When the fulltime whistle went, you could really hear the roar from the crowd. That's just great to see in American soccer."

A crowd of 66,237 saw the contest in person, establishing a club record for a match not paired with an international contest.

"It's just really great to see games like that, it's so good for the league," said FC Dallas assistant coach Oscar Pareja, watching from Houston, where his side plays Sunday. "A lot of goals. A lot of emotion. I think it was one of those games that a lot of people enjoy."

The instant classic easily could have included even more goals, as referee Kevin Stott waved off three potential penalty kick appeals. (Maybe Stott should get himself a little closer to those plays to render such important judgments; he seemed a little removed from the action.)

Which goes back to the illumination factor: When Beckham is around, there are simply more eyes paying attention, more witnesses to evaluate how things really are, good or bad.

For example, why Stott wouldn't show a yellow to Red Bull midfielder Dave van den Bergh for coming over the top of the ball and planting the bottom of his boot on Beckham's foot early in the match, only he can tell you. Beckham certainly took exception, rising quickly to scream at the Red Bull's Dutch flanker.

Beckham's presence also is casting a harsher light on the Galaxy's defensive suffering, largely a product of terrible injury attrition. When Ante Jazic left with an ankle injury Saturday, he joined a list of ailing defenders that already included starters Troy Roberts, Abel Xavier and Chris Albright. And none of that can assist the Galaxy's dire playoff chase, which is about to acquire lost-cause status.

Despite big improvement Saturday and massive fight from a desperate side, any effort over the Galaxy's final 14 games that is less than spectacular and utterly heroic will keep the Good Ship Beckham at dock during come playoff time.

So, fans had better get their Beckham fix during the regular season. Here's what they saw Saturday: Beckham was a bystander as Juan Pablo Angel's astute free kick squeezed beneath the Galaxy wall for an early Red Bull lead.

No matter. Beckham soon would supply two pinpoint crosses, one on a corner kick and another on a free kick, that teammate Carlos Pavon turned into goals. Beckham played another big part on a later strike as Edson Buddle converted a corner kick, although he wasn't credited with an official assist on that one.

Ultimately, the classy Angel busted up a 4-4 tie with a gritty, hustling game-winner from a bad angle. Perhaps it didn't have to be that way. Beckham had ample opportunity to see his team into the lead with four second-half free kicks from decent shooting distance. All four, however, bounced harmlessly off the Red Bull walls.

Beckham's bold free kicks demand precision ball strikes, and that's not easy for somebody with so little experience on a very different surface. Beckham didn't even do much Friday as the team conducted a light workout on the artificial turf at the Red Bulls practice site.

"It's just a complete shock, really," Dorman said of adjusting to artificial turf. "You have to change a few things, and it really can make a big difference, especially with the way he kicks a ball. You can't really get underneath a ball the way you can on grass."

The Galaxy still have some adjusting to do as a team, as well. With so much focus on Beckham, it was surprising that his side doesn't do a better job of finding him on the attack. His passing is about two grades above that of most of his teammates, with Landon Donovan and Xavier (when available) perhaps the exceptions.

When Beckham gets the ball in decent spots -- that is, when he receives a good pass, not just when he's scrapping for junk in the middle of the field -- he makes good choices. His sophistication shows. When a simple ball is the best plan, he supplies it. And in MLS, where most players can't claim the worldliness to understand that less is sometimes more, that isn't always the case.

When the opportunity to do something special presents itself, Beckham has the skill to pull it off.

The Galaxy did better in the second half finding their deep-lying playmaker. But he was obviously tiring by then. (Which probably also had something to do with those free kicks that couldn't beat the wall.)

"There is a lot going on, all over the place," Pareja said of Beckham's second-half fade. "He's dealing with the ankle injury, dealing with all those games in a short period of time. And I don't think he's been practicing full-out, either. You could see that he was getting quite tired out there."

Afterward, Beckham was magnanimous in defeat, managing a smile as he examined the bigger picture of a glorious night. He was disappointed to lose, of course, but recognized that the fans there saw goals aplenty and a home team victory.

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