By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 29, 2008
David Beckham, the cultural icon and marketing powerhouse, is in his second season in MLS.
David Beckham, the player, has, for all practical purposes, just arrived.
Much has remained constant since the English megastar moved stateside last summer -- the swelling attendance figures and late-night talk-show appearances, the billboards and paparazzi.
What has changed is the product he is offering and endorsing on the field.
Healthy and happy after a tumultuous debut season, Beckham's substance has matched his style and helped transform the Los Angeles Galaxy into MLS's highest-scoring team and a championship contender. His lone Washington appearance this year will come at noon today when the Galaxy faces surging D.C. United in front of what should be the season's biggest crowd at RFK Stadium and a rare network television audience for MLS.
"When I am injured, I can be a rotten, miserable so-and-so," he said in an interview last night at the team's downtown hotel. "I am fit and I am happy. It has been an enjoyable season for myself and for the team. I have worked hard to get to where I want to be, and, thankfully, it has gone well."
Statistics explain Beckham's considerable impact on the field. He has missed one Galaxy game to play for England's national team, but started all the others and scored four goals. Entering last night's MLS action, his six assists were tied for second in the league.
"I knew I was capable of getting myself fit and I know what I am capable of on the pitch," he said. "The people, when I first came here, maybe they expected me to score 10 goals every game. But my game has always been about assists and what I could do for the team with hard work and my passing. I've been able to do that, so it's been very good on that side."
It was not so good a year ago when, after leaving behind Real Madrid and the madness of European soccer, he limped into MLS with a damaged ankle. He later injured a knee, and, by the end of the year, he had appeared in just five regular season games for a Galaxy team that failed to earn a playoff berth.
"People underestimate being 100 percent and what that means," said Galaxy forward Landon Donovan, who has benefited from a better Beckham and leads MLS with 11 goals. "Even if you are 90 percent, you are not the same player. He is fit, he is confident, and you can really see he is more athletic than people realized last year. And he is taking advantage of all that.
"He has the quality to do it, so if everything else is right -- his mind is right, he is physically good -- he is going to make things happen."
MLS opponents also see a difference in a healthy Beckham, 33, and must plan accordingly for not only his renowned individual skill, but the influence he has on the game.
"He is the one who orchestrates everything, but it's like run-and-gun with the Galaxy," United midfielder Santino Quaranta said of a club averaging 2.38 goals and conceding a league-worst 1.85. "I haven't seen anything like it yet this year, so it's going to be a great test for us."
While Beckham's level of play has risen, his appeal has held steady. Though tickets to Galaxy road games are not selling at last year's feverish pace, Beckham remains a box-office hit. In anticipation of his league debut last summer at RFK, United sold all 46,686 tickets well in advance of the game. This time, about 13,000 tickets remained yesterday afternoon. Nonetheless, today's turnout might be twice as much as United's home average (18,651).
Los Angeles (6-4-3) leads MLS in home attendance with an average of 25,142 at the 27,000-seat Home Depot Center and is by far the biggest road draw at 25,317. The largest turnout this season was 39,872 at McAfee Coliseum in Oakland, Calif., for a match against the expansion San Jose Earthquakes. In three weeks, the Galaxy will visit Giants Stadium, where last year 66,237 watched a 5-4 Los Angeles loss to the New York Red Bulls.
"The league is growing, the sport is growing here, and he has been great drawing attention to it," United Coach Tom Soehn said.
Unlike last year, Beckham has been with the team since the start of the season, and unlike last year, he has remained healthy -- factors that have allowed him to forge an early bond with teammates.
"For us, we could see in the little bits he trained [last year] what he can bring to a team," Galaxy defender Chris Klein said. "But you can't fully appreciate that until you have him day in and day out and see how hard he works and the professionalism he brings. You can't do that in spurts, and he is not the type of guy who does his job in spurts. To have him do it consistently has been great for the guys."
As for his return to Washington, Beckham is strictly business. Last year, he toured the town and was escorted to the White House.
"I was proud and happy to have done all of that -- I really wanted to see the city -- but this year I am just relaxing," Beckham said.
He then offered the grin that has helped make him a global idol and added, "To be honest, it's just too hot to go outside."
United Notes: Midfielder Ben Olsen, who has not played this season because of a career-threatening ankle ailment, was upgraded to doubtful on the club's injury list, leading to speculation that he will be included on the active roster today or, more likely, Tuesday night for the U.S. Open Cup round-of-16 game against the second-tier Rochester Rhinos at Maryland SoccerPlex. He declined an interview request. . . . Forward Francis Doe, whose return from Liberian national team duty was delayed several days by passport and visa issues, was back at practice yesterday. . . . Midfielder-defender Domenic Mediate is recovering from a concussion and will not be in uniform.