Beckham returns to form with perfect timing

by Beth Harris

CARSON, Calif. (AP) A month into his hugely hyped arrival with the Los Angeles Galaxy, David Beckham has finally made a splash on the field.

His timing was impeccable.

Just when Beckham mania appeared to be fading, the English superstar revived it by scoring his first goal and setting up three others while playing the majority of minutes in two games last week.

Beckham’s first goal for the Galaxy came in a 2-0 SuperLiga victory over D.C. United last Wednesday, his first start for his new team.

That famous bending free-kick led to a fresh round of next-day Becks’ highlights on everything from ESPN’s “SportsCenter” to the tabloid show “Inside Edition.”

“I’ve scored a lot of important goals in my career, big goals in my career, and this ranks among them,” he said. “I wanted to get off to a good start with the team and with the fans.”

Then he drew 66,237 to Giants Stadium for his first Major League Soccer start. Beckham set up three goals, but the Galaxy lost 5-4 to the New York Red Bulls on Saturday.

“Oh, yeah, there’s tremendous pressure,” Galaxy general manager Alexi Lalas said. “We’re not naive to the fact that a lot of people want to see him and that there’s a lot of people buying tickets specifically to see him.”

The initial Beckham buzz had quickly died down because of a left ankle injury that relegated the former England captain to the bench for much of his first month.

Instead of “Bend It Like Beckham,” it was more “Bench It Like Beckham.”

He played a total of 37 minutes in two token appearances in his first eight games, disappointing fans in sellout crowds who were forced to buy tickets for multiple games just to see Beckham.

His first extended road trip drew an average of 42,211 fans to Toronto, Washington, New England and New York, although he sat out in Toronto and New England.

Lalas made no apologies for aggressively marketing Beckham despite his injury that occurred a month before he joined the team.

“When you buy a ticket to see the Galaxy, it says L.A. Galaxy on that ticket. It doesn’t say any of our players’ names and we can’t guarantee that any of them will be out there,” he said.

“We were upfront and said he could miss games because of injury, he could miss games because of England call ups, all of these things that occur in every other sport.”

Indeed, Beckham hopes his ankle is well enough for him to make his 97th appearance for England against Germany in London on Wednesday night. Then he’ll fly across eight time zones to try to make Thursday’s night MLS game against Chivas USA in Carson.

Not only are fans buying tickets — although just 17,223 saw his first goal in Carson — they’re snapping up No. 23 jerseys.

Even with his injury, merchandise sales are up 700 percent for the Galaxy this season and 300 percent league-wide because of Beckham, according to MLS.

However, until the most scrutinized left ankle in sports is fully healed, Beckham may continue to play in fits and starts, prompting more of the criticism that’s been directed at him and the team.

“It’s unfair,” Galaxy midfielder Peter Vagenas said. “If it were truly up to him, and if it were medically the right thing to do, he would have been out there a long time ago.”

Beckham didn’t practice with the team for the first time until last week. Before then, the Galaxy had limited media access to Beckham to news conferences. The team had been vague about his ankle and his playing status.

“It’s so hard to come into a new situation where everything is so hyped and not be able to do anything about it,” Galaxy goalkeeper Joe Cannon said. “It’s been a trying time for all of us.”

Beckham recently admitted that his ankle wasn’t ready when he made his July 21 debut in an exhibition against Chelsea attended by a star-studded sellout crowd of 27,000 and shown live on ESPN.

But Lalas said Beckham himself decided to play that night.

“There was certainly a tremendous amount of pressure and in a perfect world, we would just say no and we would have set him down for a month,” the general manager said. “But this is not a perfect world. This is a sport that is growing, and David has a tremendous responsibility that he accepts and recognizes.”

When Beckham finally did start for the first time last Wednesday, what the public likely didn’t notice was that by simply playing extended minutes for the first time, Becks became one of the guys.

“When he’s on the field with you and he’s helping you and contributing, then you look at him in a different way and he looks at us in a different way,” Landon Donovan said. “Not that we didn’t respect him before, but now there’s so much more respect.”