WASHINGTON, D.C. (Friday, August 10, 2007) -- David Beckham's Magical Mystery Tour hit RFK Stadium here last night and it was a wondrous thing to behold.
A crowd of 46,686 people showed up for D.C. United's 1-0 victory over the Los Angeles Galaxy, the third-largest crowd to ever see a United home match and the two larger audiences came when doubleheaders were played, prior to about 10,000 seats being removed to reconfigure when baseball's Washington Nationals became tenants in 2005.
It was clear a vast majority of those fans in attendance came despite soaring heat, dripping humidity, and the threat of rain that turned into a second-half deluge, to see the English superstar. They cheered when he came out with the Galaxy reserves at the start of the match, cheered even louder when he got up behind the bench to warm up and test his ailing ankle midway through the first half, and then became positively delirious when in the 72nd minute he stripped off his warm-up gear and slipped in his game jersey.
He made his Major League Soccer debut despite the rain, slippery field and the Galaxy being a man down after Kyle Martino was sent off in the 67th minute with a red card for a reckless tackle from behind. In fact, Galaxy coach Frank Yallop said the wet conditions made things safer for Beckham and his ailing left ankle because, prior to the rain, the field had been "sticky."
It was an interesting 21 minutes for Beckham, who sort of glided around as a deep central midfielder and did not shy away from the action, occasionally challenging for the ball. But in truth, it was as if he had a five-yard electronic fence around him. No D.C. player came within an arms length of him when he had the ball and this gave him ample opportunity to make some very nice long passes.
At one point he took a long shot, or maybe it was an intended pass, that United keeper Troy Perkins handled easily. On another, he tried to hit Landon Donovan at the top of the box and Perkins arrived at the same moment as the ball leaving Donovan in a heap and begging for a penalty that referee Jair Marrufo wouldn't give. In his post-game press conference, Yallop, before he mentioned Beckham's debut, opened with a extended complaint about being deprived of a desperately needed point in the standings by the failure to be awarded an obvious penalty.
In the 85th minute, Beckham displayed his magic with his first free kick, from about 38 yards on the left side. He put it right on the head of fellow reserve Carlos Pavon, who sent his shot high and wide.
"It's great to be out there because it's not nice to disappoint people, it's not nice to disappoint people that paid a lot of money to come and see the game," Beckham said, seated next to Yallop at the crowded press conference. "I was thankful to actually get on the pitch. It was a good night, but also a bad night because we ended up losing the game.
"It's a big forward step for me tonight, getting 20 minutes. I was happy with that."
Twenty minutes was enough for Beckham to display his poise and talent, but he will learn a sometimes painful lesson -- sending a pinpoint pass to Edson Buddle will not generate the same result as providing one to Raśl, Robinho or Ruud Van Nistelrooy. When he looks behind him, there will not be a Roberto Carlos in support. It will be interesting to watch how he adjusts to no longer having less than world-class All-Stars surrounding him.
Last night was such an event that even soccer-hater Michael Wilbon felt obligated to make an appearance. But, of course, he took the occasion to write yet another Washington Post column bashing soccer in general, MLS in particular with the old North American Soccer League thrown in for good measure. One must admire his consistency.
In the end, the 46,000 plus went home happy. They got to see Becks' debut, they got to see him take off his shirt not once, but twice (and then again when he swapped jerseys with United captain Ben Olsen), and they saw United get an important three points. Now the test will be whether United can get those fans -- the average attendance is around 17,000 -- to pay for a return visit when Beckham is not in the house.
Beckham seems, both on the field and off, to be a genuinely nice guy and almost strangely unaffected by the chaos around him.
Beckham said he hopes, given no new problems with his ankle, to play 30 minutes Sunday at the New England Revolution even though it has the FieldTurf surface he hates. There was no word about his plans for next Wednesday's Superliga semifinals against United at The Home Depot Center but, if he plays, don't expect United to give him the courtesy of that five yard no-touch perimeter.
Robert Wagman is SoccerTimes senior correspondent.
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