CARSON, Calif. | In the waning minutes of a recent game against the New York Red Bulls, the Los Angeles Galaxy desperately needed a goal, and David Beckham was in position to deliver. A successful cross or perfectly bent free kick from the high-profile Brit could stave off a 2-1 home loss.
From about 20 yards out and to the right, he lofted a sharp, on-target kick.
But the ball was batted away, and the more than 20,000 Galaxy fans left deflated. But the irksome loss and Beckham's failure to come through have been an anachronism for the Galaxy this season.
More importantly, Beckham's presence on the pitch has provided fans with a different experience than last year, which began with his much-hyped midseason arrival and finished with disappointment over his scarce playing time because of injury.
"We've almost had to reintroduce the Galaxy and remind people that the Galaxy is playing and David is playing with the Galaxy and most important that David is healthy," club president Alexi Lalas said. "Our challenge in the offseason was to prepare for a team where David was here from the start, where we hoped he was healthy and where we hoped he was playing well. And those things have happened."
Few athletes had a more anticipated debut than Beckham, the international soccer star who last year signed a five-year deal with the Galaxy worth a potential $250 million. So it was an equally historic letdown when he played sparingly while recovering from knee and ankle injuries sustained while playing for his previous club, Real Madrid.
Fans criticized Lalas and team owner AEG for their dishonesty about the severity of Beckham's injuries or his ability to play. Some legal experts even suggested the team could be sued for false advertising by promoting Beckham as part of its ticket sales campaigns.
"I don't think that we would have done it any differently," Lalas said. "We were constantly making sure that people understood, 'Look, this is not a concert. It's a sporting event, and you're not buying a ticket to David Beckham. You're buying a ticket to the Galaxy.'"
The solid play of Beckham and his teammates has cooled any leftover hurt feelings. Entering Sunday's game against D.C. United at RFK Stadium, the Galaxy are first in the Western Conference and lead Major League Soccer with 31 goals. Beckham has scored four of those goals and has added six assists. But perhaps most importantly, he has played 1,078 minutes.
"Obviously because I've started from the first game and been able to train with the players day in and day out, it's definitely more of a fresh start," Beckham said. "So far this season, there's going to be ups and downs, but there have been far more positives than negatives. It's going good so far."
And from a business standpoint, there appear to be no lingering ill effects from the letdown of last year. The Galaxy continue to top MLS in attendance, averaging 25,220 at home despite the highest ticket prices in the league. The team also has drawn big crowds on the road, including 39,872 for a game against the San Jose Earthquakes at McAfee Coliseum in Oakland, Calif.
"We are in a partnership with David, and we are going to maximize what we have and this platform that we have to strengthen the Galaxy brand," Lalas said. "And we will use him, and he will use us."
Indeed, the success of both Beckham and the team has allowed the Galaxy to operate more like a well-balanced franchise rather than showcase vehicle for a single player.
"There's now a more reasonable level of expectation, and mix that with a first-place team and you've got a pretty good situation," said David Carter, principal of the Sports Business Group, a Los Angeles-based consultant group. "It's too soon to tell, but there's no doubt they at the very least have put themselves in a much better position going forward because they're no longer playing defense, and it allows them to set up a situation where they can market the team instead of just [Beckham.]"