EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The fans came in droves to see David Beckham, but the Beckham they saw didn't play like the player they hoped to see.
Yes, the face was still the same, and the tattoos were still there, but Beckham's crosses misfired and free kicks fizzled. Whether it was the heat, the turf, the Red Bulls or all of the above, Beckham's performance in his second MLS visit to New York wasn't nearly as impressive as his first, when he delivered two assists and was dangerous throughout the Galaxy's 5-4 loss on Aug. 18, 2007.
Instead of Beckham playing the role of creator or goal scorer, it was his supporting cast that picked up the slack and reminded us just how much firepower the Galaxy actually have. Guatemalan striker Carlos Ruiz, making his first start since suffering a knee injury in the team's season opener, scored his first goal of the season on a pass from all-star forward Edson Buddle. Landon Donovan, who looked dangerous all night, combined skill with some luck to curl a cross at goal that slipped inside the far post in the dying minutes to give the Galaxy a 2-2 tie.
Beckham has been enjoying an incredible season on the field -- Saturday night notwithstanding. However, Donovan, Ruiz and Buddle are the keys to the Galaxy's chances of being more than a circus sideshow and high-scoring also-ran.
While Donovan and Buddle have enjoyed all-star seasons, it was Ruiz who surprised on Saturday with easily his best match of the season. He has struggled with injuries and fitness this year and hadn't scored a goal before Saturday. With Los Angeles actively trying to trade him, Ruiz looked like a good bet to leave the Galaxy for the second time in his career, but a heart-to-heart with Galaxy coach Ruud Gullit appears to have reawakened Ruiz.
"[Ruiz] hasn't done [anything] for us for six months and I had a conversation with him and I told him, 'You haven't [anything] for us, and it's difficult to get you into good shape, and if you continue like that we might have to trade you,'" Gullit said. "The good thing about him is that he was aware of the fact that he wasn't doing so well this season. He showed that he wants to stay with the L.A. Galaxy and he showed us a commitment that was unbelievable.
"He proved today that he's the player that everybody knows and I think he's done extremely well. He took my conversation very seriously, we have a better Ruiz now and I'm very proud of him."
There have been questions in recent weeks about whether the Galaxy would need to deal one of their four star attackers -- most likely Ruiz -- to improve a defense that has allowed a league-worst 33 goals. Saturday's performance didn't do much to ease concerns about the defense, but the absence of rookie standout Sean Franklin and recent signing Eduardo Dominguez (who missed the match with an illness) played a role.
Gullit believes the Galaxy does have the defenders to put together a useful defense, with Dominguez looking like an upgrade over the recently waived Abel Xavier.
"We know what we have up front and we're trying to mold the back," Gullit said. "But because of the restrictions of MLS it's not as easy as you want. We have to deal with what we have. The good thing is that Troy [Roberts] is doing well."
Gullit has learned what plenty of MLS coaches have learned through the years: MLS salary restrictions prevent teams from being loaded all over the field. With Beckham, Donovan and Ruiz taking up a large chunk of the Galaxy's salary cap, there isn't much room for going out and building a stingy defense. The Galaxy struck gold in the draft with Franklin, who has emerged as a rookie of the year candidate, while Roberts has shown signs of being a solid contributor.
From these pieces, a defense must emerge because the Galaxy look poised to stand pat with its attacking lineup. Gullit has gained confidence in Ruiz and sees an offense that is good enough to keep up its league-best scoring rate.
If there is an area of concern that stood out for the Galaxy on Saturday night it was in defensive midfield, where Brazilian Alvaro Pires moved around like he was in quick sand, covering little ground and allowing Red Bulls midfielder Jorge Rojas to run wild in midfield in his debut. As Gullit pointed out after the match, the Galaxy back line struggled in part because of having to deal with midfielders running loose.
Whether it is Brandon McDonald (who was out injured) or Joey Franchino, someone will have to step up to partner alongside Peter Vagenas in the Galaxy midfield to help do the defensive work necessary when Donovan and Beckham are paired in midfield. Without strong defensive support in midfield, the Galaxy will continue to be overrun, and L.A. will continue to drop points in games in which its offense was good enough to win.
That task of finding that ideal balance falls to Gullit, who must mold a defense that is stable enough to stop allowing goals in bunches. As we have seen all season, the Galaxy can score plenty of goals, but until L.A. starts preventing goals, the Galaxy and Beckham won't be more than a high-scoring traveling circus.
Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes a blog, Soccer By Ives and can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.