Monday, August 20, 2007

Thank Goodness He Has Left Town

The last two weeks leading up to Saturday's soccer match between Red Bull New York (RBNY) and the Los Angeles Galaxy had been stressful.

There was quite a bit of talk around the RBNY fan base about the increase in ticket price for this match. Ticket prices were doubled on average from $20-$30 to $50 and $60 per seat. Many, including me, were dismayed by this ploy and I feared that the whole thing could backfire on my team. The reason for the increase in ticket prices was the new addition to the Galaxy squad.

David Beckham is now playing soccer for a team in Major League Soccer, and his arrival has caused quite a stir.

The hope of Beckham's arrival is that he will add consumer legitimacy to the league. That RBNY will now draw more than fifteen thousand spectators to their home matches.

RBNY has a solid fan base, a good supporters club in the Empire Supporters Club (ESC), and is situated in a lucrative market (metropolitan New York). But fifteen thousand attendees do not make the team financially viable or impressive in the media.

When teams like the New Jersey Devils and New Jersey Nets (both of whom have played in the same Meadowlands Sports Complex as RBNY) draw only fifteen thousand on average, they can survive because they play in established leagues (the NHL and NBA, respectively). So, the success of other teams in their leagues and their lucrative television contracts make those less successful franchises more viable.

MLS is still a fledgling league in its 12th year of existence. The owners and the league, all billionaires extrodinaires must subsidize growth of the league; but that will come to a halt some day. The league must start to stand on its own two feet (and checkbook).

Beckham's arrival, along with the arrival of other foreign players, is hoped to be the next big step in solidifying the league's standing in the US market. Beckham's arrival in Los Angeles a few weeks ago was marred by an ankle injury he picked-up as a member of Real Madrid at the end of the season in Spain. He played twelve minutes in his new team's exhibition against Chelsea, then sat on the bench for league matches against D.C., New England, and Toronto, before making a strong and successful appearance in a non-league match against D.C. United in the International SuperLiga semi-final.

On Saturday morning, I drove my family to visit some friends in Northern New Jersey. One of those friends was joining me for the big match. We had a couple conversations about how much time we should leave for the drive to the stadium and it was a more complicated discussion than any other time we attended a match together.


Over 66,000 tickets had been sold for the match, the stadium holds 79,000, and some of the parking lots were shut-down to accommodate construction, all of which generated helpful publications for the RBNY front-office offering guidance about how much time you should allow and where you would be allowed to park.

We left two hours before kick-off, weaved our way through the maze of security, construction and tail-gaters to find a rather excellent spot closer to the entrances and exits than we had hoped.

There was almost a full-hour before lick-off when we were safely ensconced in our seats, our excellent seats in Section 137, near the corner flag.

The stadium filled with nubile young women in Beckham shirts, and the phenomenon I don't quite yet understand: teenage boys in Beckham shirts swooning over the superstar. Are these boys excited about his excellent play or his excellent physique? They seem to know very little about soccer in general, the league specifically, and are ignorant about the details of Beckham's career that soccer fans can generally spout off with ease.

We had four of these lithe young men seated in front of us and they went wild when Beckham made his appearance for warm-ups, then when the team arrived for kick-off, each time time their studly hero touched the ball, and ultimately when he removed his shirt at the end of the match.

A phenomenon I like, but do not understand.

The match?

Spectacular. Within nine minutes the score was NY 1- 2 LA, which goals were scored in quick succession:

Juan Pablo Angel, the RBNY international superstar, All-Star MVP, league MVP candidate, RBNY leading scorer, Colombian international beauty, and New York team savior, netted a free-kick by shooting under the Galaxy wall.

Two beautifully crossed shots bent into the box by Beckham led to two goals by Carlos Pavon, putting LA into the lead.

The match settled down a bit, but play remained strong. When Beckham fell victim to hard but legal tackle, he leaped to his feet enraged that the tackle took him off his feet. It was a text-book tackle that any player would make and Beckham's reaction was completely out of proportion to the situation. If he thinks his arrival as the most famous player in MLS means he is exempt from defensive plays, he is grossly mistaken. He lashed-out at the defender and players had to be restrained to prevent fisticuffs.

Beckham's frustration showed again when in a defensive move he stepped on the foot of a NY midfielder and aggravated his tender ankle. The crowd roared its approval, and it took a few minutes before he could walk properly again.

The score remained the same until the closing moments of the first half when Dane Richards came down the field on the left side (he usually plays on the right), and when attempting to deliver a cross into the box saw the ball slam squarely into the face of David Beckham. The force of the blow was obvious ten rows up and Beckham was dazed as the play continued around him. The ball returned from Beckham's face to Richards' foot and he delivered it into the mouth of the goal, it deflected out to the foot of Clint Mathis who hammered home a shot that no goal keeper, including the excellent LA goal keeper Joe Cannon, could hope to stop. Score at the half: NY 2-2 LA.

The stands were electric. Section 101, home of ESC, was rocking and rolling the entire half and right through half-time.

The second-half started as hard and fast as the first half, and Jozy Altidore, the 17-year-old phenom for RBNY scored in the 49th and 70th minutes to the great delight of the home crowd (and silently passive consternation of the Beckham fans who wouldn't know a set-shot from a red card).

Beckham is known for his delivery, not his goal scoring. As the first two LA goals showed, Beckham can place the ball squarely on any spot in front of the goal, at will. he is the international king of the set-piece, whether from the field of play or delivering in from a corner.

Corner shots are a staple of soccer. If the defense sends the ball out-of-bound behind the goal line, the offensive squad places the ball in the corner of the field and delivers an unimpeded shot into play. Nobody does this better than Beckham. He can score a goal from this position, but more often than not, as was the case with Carlos Pavon in the first half, he can place it right on the head or foot of a teammate standing all alone in front of the goal. It's almost like a magic trick. It's an amazing feat.

My fear about the sixty-six thousand fans attending this match is that they would be rooting fro LA, just because Beckham was here.

A wonderful surprise was awaiting me when Beckham took his first corner, but it was even more impressive when he took his second. As he approached the corner, a cacophony of boos greeted him. I had never heard such a roar of derision at a Red Bulls match. Of course, the boos have little, if any, impact on a professional athlete; but they sure warm the cockles of the heart of an aging soccer fan who suffers a near-empty stadium week after week.

I am a David Beckham fan. I love reading about him and watching him play. But when his club (L.A. Galaxy) plays my club, my admiration goes on hold and I cheer against him as I would any opposing player. And if ever his national team (England) should play my national team (USA), I will boo him again. My admiration of him is not blind. I want my team to win, and I will like him again right afterwards.

The 4-2 score stayed the same for less than a minute, when Landon Donovan (a/k/a Landycakes or Landon Divanon) delivered a goal for the visitors. NY 4-3 LA.

Seven goals had been scored. SEVEN!

Ten minutes later, Edson Buddle (formerly of my NY team), evened the score with an unassisted beauty; and with less than ten minutes remaining it seemed the match would end in a draw. Not the best result, but certainly better than losing at home to the likes of David Spice and Landycakes.

In the 88th minute, Juan Pablo Angel, delivered a very hard shot on goal that ricocheted from the arms of the goal keeper into the goal to change the score in our favor: NY 5-4 LA!

As time ticked away the last two minutes and four minutes of added time, RBNY became a defensive machine, burning precious seconds off the clock as the LA squad seemed to fall into depressed resignation.

A glorious finish!

We jumped for joy in the stands, the Beckham supporters slunk away to derisive calls from home-town supporters, my voice began cracking, and the teams shook hands and the media swarmed into place for the after-match interviews and pictures.

Beckham made his way to the Galaxy bench where he removed his shirt and a Beatlemania-like squeal rose from the stands. I once attended a Frankie Goes To Hollywood show filled with thirteen year old girls screaming in the same manner. I never thought I'd hear it at a sporting event.

Juan Pablo Angel, as talented and handsome as Beckham, was declared Man of the Match, and he was being interviewed for television and was followed on-screen by Beckham who was gracious, friendly, enthusiastic and proud of the match.

This was a success.

The Beckham machine had rolled through New York, as ominous as a Hillary Clinton campaign stop but far more entertaining, and we had survived the hype and come out on top.

Beckham is a star non-pareil. There is no athlete like him. No baseball player, basketball thug, hockey player, or NFL gentle giant who commands the adoration of so many men, women, boys and girls. Nobody sells more shirts (not even the Rolling Stones), and no star is as gracious and humble off the field.

The fear about ticket prices had been that thousands would buy over-priced tickets and Beckham would not play, and infuriating tens of thousands of potential new soccer fans. Not only did Beckham play for the entire match, it was one of the best matches any of us had ever seen played in the United States.

Red Bull New York delivered! Everyone was satisfied.

Beckham delivered. MLS is lucky to have him.

And thank goodness he has left town!

Dick Mac Recommends:

Bend It Like Beckham
Imran Ali, Ameet Chana

David Beckham

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