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Aug 23, 2007

Beckham still very much in McClaren's plans

New city, new country, new club and new league. David Beckham's life does not lack novelty value, but in England's 2-1 loss to Germany at Wembley Stadium on Wednesday, the first MLS player to represent England formed half of a new partnership on the right wing.

For a decade, it was the preserve of Beckham and his best friend, Gary Neville. Now there is a coalition of different generations, with a 30-something joined by a teenager, right back Micah Richards. The former has been accused of taking his soccer pension in Los Angeles; the latter has barely completed his education in the Manchester City Academy.

It is an alliance of opposites. Richards, an outstanding athlete, provides the attributes Beckham lacks. Unexpectedly, Richards was more creative against Germany, providing the forceful advance, sharp skill and perceptive pass for Frank Lampard's opening goal. But there were signs, even though Beckham and Richards were paired for only 45 minutes before the latter went into the center of the defense, that Richards' pace could help extend an international career that has brought Beckham 97 caps.

Dovetailing nicely, Beckham, though overshadowed, adapted his game to permit the overlapping Richards more room. But under the circumstances, it was unrealistic to expect Beckham to deliver his most eye-catching performance.

After only one full game for the Los Angeles Galaxy, it was inevitable that Beckham faded after halftime; he has yet to attain optimum fitness due to the time he's missed with a left ankle injury. It was something of a surprise that England coach Steve McClaren did not substitute him, especially 29 hours before the Galaxy's match vs. Chivas USA (on "MLS Primetime Thursday," 9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2). Typically, in friendly games, a national team coach will be mindful of a player's club commitments.

"I thought he gave a good performance," McClaren said. "Becks lasted 90 minutes, which is a plus. As long as he performs like that, he'll be in [the team]."

McClaren was more effusive in his praise of the junior partner on the right flank, saying of Richards, "He's going to be an asset for us. He's got great potential. We wanted him to get outside Becks and be positive, and he did that."

It is one of the peculiarities of Beckham's current incarnation that, long before he became a Galaxy star, two particular Americanisms were invoked in descriptions of his style of play. There was the "Hollywood ball" -- the 40- or 50-yard diagonal cross-pitch pass that either resulted in a goal-scoring opportunity or loss of possession -- and the "quarterback role," briefly favored by Sven-Goran Eriksson, which placed Beckham in a deep, central position to spread long passes.

Despite Beckham's supposed station on the right, the former captain appeared intent on reprising that role at times. The consequence was a surfeit of hopeful long balls, a failing of England's in the Eriksson era.

Other contributions were more constructive. One vicious free kick was flicked on by Alan Smith and almost produced a goal. When appearing in the inside-left channel, Beckham supplied Lampard with a pass that merited a better shot. Twice, he almost delivered an equalizer for the replacement Kieron Dyer, with a curling ball from deep after outflanking the German defense; and from a corner, John Terry had a header cleared off the line.

Beckham was not the only aging right-sided midfielder who has acquired the reputation of a set-piece specialist. Germany's Bernd Schneider, however, lacks the trappings of superstardom. Yet he produced the most telling cross of the match, though it resulted in Germany's first goal only because of a goalkeeping error.

With Philipp Lahm in midfield, debuting left back Christian Pander was Beckham's direct opponent. His was a bow to remember, too, though Beckham was blameless as the newcomer's unstoppable long-range shot brought the winner.

But the identity of England's goal scorer does pose a threat to Beckham's place on the team. McClaren's failure to solve the conundrum of how to harness the talents of Chelsea's Lampard and Steven Gerrard, together with a reluctance to drop either that will be accentuated by Lampard's goal, could impact Beckham. Despite his stated preference for a central berth, Gerrard, not Beckham, is arguably England's finest right-sided player.

So, to make his decision, McClaren has more reasons to pile up the air miles to Los Angeles.

It also makes for a long journey home for the two most famous soccer émigrés in California, Beckham and Jurgen Klinsmann. The former Germany coach has abandoned his attempts to combine international football in Europe and a domestic life by the Pacific Ocean, choosing the retired ocean life (for now, at least). Rest assured that Beckham has no plans to follow suit.

Richard Jolly writes for ESPNsoccernet and covers the English Premiership and UEFA Champions League. He can be reached on richard_jolly@lycos.co.uk.