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Jul 18, 2008

Beckham buzz starts again as Galaxy visit New York

Aug. 18, 2007. It was one of the best nights in MLS history, a perfect convergence of elements to forge an evening of soccer not many in attendance have forgotten.

Almost exactly a year ago, David Beckham, making his first MLS appearance in the New York area, set up two goals in a nine-goal thriller in front of a raucous 66,237 at Giants Stadium. The home team New York Red Bulls won, 5-4, but Beckham worked his magic, sending both the die-hard soccer fans and curiosity seekers home entertained.

"It was such a phenomenon last year, and I think as a result, maybe more of the people who will be here on Saturday will be actual fans instead of people who were just here trying to take a look at Beckham," MLS commissioner Don Garber said of Beckham's second visit to Giants Stadium.

It will be a tough act to repeat, but Beckham, the Los Angeles Galaxy and the New York Red Bulls will try to do just that Saturday (6:30 p.m. ET), as another crowd north of 50,000 prepares to converge on the Meadowlands.

While many of the fans who don't normally make it out to Red Bulls games will be there to see Beckham, a good amount of those non-regulars will be soccer fans who will attend to take in a true soccer event. They'll mingle with fellow soccer fans and enjoy the rare experience of a packed football stadium for an MLS match.

This was the case last year, when walking around the Giants Stadium parking lots beforehand you could find fans wearing every soccer jersey imaginable. Last year's Beckham game filled a void in a rare summer without international soccer friendlies at the Meadowlands. That isn't the case this year (the U.S. national team tied Argentina in front of 78,682 at Giants Stadium in June, and FC Barcelona will face the Red Bulls next month) but that won't stop fans from showing up Saturday in droves.

Many of those fans will be wearing Beckham jerseys -- some of the more than 300,000 Beckham jerseys sold to date, a number that makes Beckham's jersey the largest selling sports jersey in the world. That army of fans wearing Galaxy No. 23 jerseys should help silence suggestions that Beckham's second year in MLS would endure a substantial drop-off in interest and buzz. These concerns have been proved false by the stadiums he continues to fill and the media attention he generates.

"Beckham in year two is more than we could have hoped for, just like year one was more than we could have hoped for," Garber said. "The league is far more recognizable here and abroad than it ever was before David. That is evidenced by the number of media that cover the league, the number of credentials for Galaxy games, global merchandise sales and the interest from players around the world to come into the league."

As much excitement as Beckham's visit to New York is generating, it is also serving as a stark reminder that the market's MLS team is still searching for that kind of buzz. It needs that kind of transcendent player to help take advantage of a market with a large reservoir of soccer fans, fans that largely ignore the New York Red Bulls, except matches like Saturday's and the Aug. 6 friendly against Barcelona.

Claudio Reyna's sudden retirement last week not only amplified the point that the Red Bulls have yet to sign a player with that buzz, but also reminded us that the club will have a chance to add such a player next year, when their new stadium is set to open. While there is only one David Beckham, only one soccer player who can single-handedly fill mega-stadiums in the United States, there is another transcendent figure who just might have a similar impact with the Red Bulls.

That player is Thierry Henry, the charismatic French star who only two weeks ago helped draw a large crowd to a charity soccer game in Manhattan. It can be argued that Henry is second only to Beckham in star power among English-speaking soccer players in the world (Cristiano Ronaldo has a case, but still doesn't match Henry's endorsement portfolio). Henry spends part of his summers in New York and has stated repeatedly that he would like to play in the United States one day.

The Red Bulls need to make it happen, and MLS needs it to happen. While Beckham's arrival has helped give the league an immeasurable boost, the constant struggles of the league's New York club have only hindered MLS because of its inability to tap into arguably the country's largest soccer market.

Until that day comes, and until the sight of an international soccer superstar playing in New York isn't a rare occurrence to be noted on a calendar, fans in the area will flock to see matches like Saturday's because, in MLS at least, there still is only one David Beckham.

Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes a blog, Soccer By Ives and can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.

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