Sunday, July 22, 2007

Debut More About Money Than Payoff

Los Angeles Galaxy General Manager Alexi Lalas, left, signed David Beckham to play in M.L.S.

Published: July 22, 2007

Carson, Calif.

Yes, gentle reader, I am under no commercial restraints and can freely reveal to you that the other British import, David Beckham, did indeed play the last 12-plus minutes last night and that nobody died. Beckham’s gimpy ankle even survived a crushing tackle by the evil Lord Spoilsport, otherwise known as Steve Sidwell, a late Chelsea sub.

In his debut as the man who brought Posh Spice to America, Beckham skipped around after entering in the 78th minute and even took a game-ending corner kick that seemed to have been ordered up in the game room of Major League Soccer. The Los Angeles Galaxy lost to the perennial English power by a 1-0 score on John Terry’s close-range goal in the 49th minute.

“It was nice to be out there with the lads,” said Beckham, who admitted he was drained by the past 10 emotional days. He also praised the effort by his teammates who had been ridiculed as a pub team in a loss earlier in the week.

It took that one aching ankle to demonstrate what a healthy economy we have here in North America. Great batches of money were already in the till from all those sold tickets and all those sold Beckham 23 jerseys, before the great one even touched the ball in the 80th minute.

Master Beckham made his jog onto the field to justify all those television cameras trucked in just for the occasion of his debut, but also to satisfy the competitive urges of a world-class athlete.

His inconvenient sprained ankle — sustained late in the season with England and Real Madrid — seemed to indicate what a dicey business it is to sign any athlete, since they have a tendency to get hurt.

In a way, though, it didn’t matter, since people from Southern California to Toronto had already bought Beckham gear, lured by the whiff of some presumed glamour beyond talent, the same way Americans seem besotted by Paris Hilton perhaps, or Donald Trump. We don’t know exactly what they produce, but it sounds exciting.

In Beckham’s case, he has come to the New World to demonstrate certain ball-thumping skills. He never was a Pelé, a Maradona, a Baggio, a Zidane, a Ronaldinho, etc. etc., but he has been a very good player, rejuvenated this past spring at the age of 32.

Spending at least $32.5 million over five years on Beckham is not that much of an economic gamble, given the discretionary cash that people have already spent, but is his singular talent enough to transform Major League Soccer and the downtrodden Galaxy?

In its first 11 seasons, the league had already imported a few aging stars, including Roberto Donadoni, in the early days of the MetroStars, a team so bad that its name was mercifully changed to the Red Bulls under new ownership. Donadoni was not much of a gate attraction in the swamplands of New Jersey, but he was an Italian World Cup regular.

The selfless Donadoni used to receive the ball in the middle of what passed for the MetroStars’ offense. He would look left and hesitate at the wretched options on that side. Then he would look right and deliberate what calamity might occur if he swung the ball over in that direction. By that time the moment had passed. Donadoni went back to Italy and is now the national team coach; there is presumably a moral to that story.

The same thing happened with glorious elders like Lothar Matthäus of Germany and Youri Djorkaeff of France, a couple of World Cup winners who came to New York, and transformed nothing. Jürgen Klinsmann, who lives out here, wisely resisted the temptation to play here, ultimately guiding Germany to a third-place finish in last year’s World Cup.

Beckham may very well have watched the Galaxy offense mill around last night and wondered, “To whom exactly am I supposed to give the ball?” Landon Donovan, the previous highest-paid Galaxy star, made one move in each half but otherwise drifted around like a human screensaver.

In the weeks or years to come, Beckham may actually connect with a rocket or two from a free kick, when the ball is dead and everybody is watching the bloke with the golden hair and the Jordanian number on his jersey.

Beckham was also a brilliant passer with a live ball, when he had folks named Yorke and Giggs and van Nistelrooy up front for Manchester United. He could put the ball near the net, and they would meet up with it like seltzer meeting chocolate syrup.

Ah, soccer alchemy. The old Cosmos had it because they had achieved critical mass with elders at virtually every position. Those days are not coming back any time soon.

M.L.S. was tottering along nicely with a low-budget plan, but maybe the ticket money and the jersey money will bring in a striker who knows what to do with a Beckham parabola.