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BECKHAM'S GALAXY DEBUT

Start of something big

Beckham makes a brief appearance, but his influence is clear to his teammates and his opponents, who predict big things for him.

July 22, 2007|Grahame L. Jones | Times Staff Writer

Finally, the David Beckham era is under way.

Finally, the England national team midfielder and global marketing icon has put in some actual work on a Los Angeles soccer field. Only 16 minutes and 19 seconds, to be sure, but some work nonetheless.

Given his $6.5-million-a-year contract with Major League Soccer, it works out to be some very expensive minutes, but the hype and hoopla of the last few weeks now will perhaps subside and the sport itself can take center stage.

The 32-year-old Beckham, his injured left ankle heavily taped, made his Galaxy debut in a 1-0 loss to Chelsea of the English Premier League in front of a sellout crowd of 27,000 at the Home Depot Center on Saturday night.

Oddly enough, it was John Terry, the man who replaced Beckham as captain of the England team, who scored the game's lone goal, steering a shot inside the left post in the 49th minute after the Galaxy defense failed to clear a corner kick by another England international, Frank Lampard.

Afterward, Terry predicted that Beckham's influence on soccer in the United States will be huge.

"He's going to take it to another level," he said. "All eyes will be on MLS now."

Certainly, the amount of time Beckham spent on the field was of less importance than the effect that his presence had on his teammates. For the first time this season, the Galaxy looked like a team. The players raised their game to match the occasion.

Even Chelsea Coach Jose Mourinho, not a man to pass out undue compliments, spoke of the Galaxy being "highly motivated" and playing with "great concentration."

Beckham, too, was impressed by his teammates' resolve against a clearly superior opponent.

"When you're playing a team of the quality of Chelsea, where every player is comfortable on the ball, every player wants the ball, every player is capable of doing something in the game, and we just lose, one-nil ... it was a good performance from the team," Beckham said.

"It was nice to get out there and kick a soccer ball again. I haven't trained in weeks. It was just nice to be out there with the lads and get this game over and done with. I've enjoyed it."

The fans watched Beckham's every move, even while on the Galaxy bench, until he entered in the 78th minute.

"It made me feel a little embarrassed at times," Beckham said of the their reaction to such ordinary actions as removing his warmup jacket or tying his shoelaces. "It was amazing.

"It was very emotional. It was my first game here. My first appearance for the Galaxy tonight, and to get that was incredible."

On the field, Beckham's contribution was necessarily limited because of his injured ankle. The statistics will record that he scored no goals, had no assists, took no shots, but did manage a corner kick. The first pass made to him came from Pete Vagenas. The first pass he made was to Quavas Kirk.

The fans were loud and animated, and they, too, raised the Galaxy's game to a new level.

Galaxy rookie defender Ty Harden said the atmosphere was electric.

"I love the excitement, I love the fans getting into it," he said. "Whatever it takes to get them into it is awesome."

Fans will soon learn that Beckham's impact is not going to be the number of goals he scores. Even at Real Madrid, he scored only 15 in 141 matches.

Paul Smith, Chelsea's business affairs director, put it best when warning fans not to expect another Pele or another George Best or another Johan Cruyff, all of whom lit up American soccer fields three decades ago.

"What's going to be dangerous and what everyone has to be careful about is presenting what kind of player he is, because David's real strength is being part of that team ethos," Smith said.

"He's a great passer of the ball, great at free kicks, but he's not going to be the equivalent of Michael Jordan on the soccer field. If people are expecting to come and see him play and he doesn't do that, then they'll dismiss him as being a little bit of a fraud. That would be unfair.

"They need to appreciate what he does and how he works for the team. He's not going to be a stand-alone star. He's going to be a guy who's going to look to blend the team together. That might be a sophisticated message to communicate."

Beckham showed some steel when Chelsea's Steve Sidwell went in hard on a tackle, sending Beckham sprawling. Beckham emerged unhurt, but the incident impressed Kirk.

"I actually thought he wasn't going to go into the guy," Kirk said. "But he just gritted his teeth and went straight into him. I like that. Even with the injury, he came out and played hard."

In the earlier game, Tigres UANL of Mexico scored two goals in a three-minute span in the first half and went on to defeat South Korea's Suwon Bluewings, 3-0. Mexico national team striker Francisco "Kikin" Fonseca scored in the 11th and 30th minutes, with fellow forward Walter Gaitan contributing a goal in the 14th minute.

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Times staff writers Jaime Cardenas and Dylan Hernandez contributed to this report.

grahame.jones@latimes.com

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