It will be a high-noon meeting Sunday at RFK Stadium for two of Major League Soccer’s big-money players.
David Beckham and Marcelo Gallardo, both veterans of a memorable 1998 World Cup final game between arch rivals England and Argentina, face each other when the Los Angeles Galaxy visit RFK Stadium. Not long ago, it would have been hard to imagine such talent meeting on an American soccer field.
Beckham and Gallardo are products of MLS’ designated player rule that has added spice to the 13-year-old league.
“It’s been very positive so far,” Beckham said of his experience with Los Angeles. “Every stadium we have gone to we are selling out. … We are trying to get up there with all the other sports in the U.S.”
With the United States noted as a graveyard for soccer leagues, MLS kept a tight-fisted financial grip over expenses from the league’s inception in 1996. MLS controlled all player signings and restricted teams to a $1.7 million salary cap.
Last year, the league’s “single-entity” concept cracked, allowing the money to flow. The seismic event was Beckham’s signing under a new rule that allowed teams to buy high-profile players with only a portion of their salaries counting against the team cap.
After Beckham’s five-year $250 million deal (including marketing) with the Galaxy, more designated players came on board. Premier League stars Juan Pablo Angel and Claudio Reyna arrived at the Red Bulls. Mexican ace Cuauhtemoc Blanco joined the Chicago Fire, while FC Dallas spent $1 million on Brazilian Denilson.
D.C. United got into the act this season, forking out $1.8 million a year for Gallardo a former Argentine national team star, and then upped 2007 MVP Luciano Emilio into the designated player category in May.
Gallardo and Beckham, both key playmakers at their clubs, are two of the league’s most exciting players.
The two midfielders will forever be linked to the 1998 World Cup clash between England and Argentina in France. Beckham received a red card in the 47th minute of the game. Gallardo came on for Argentina as a 68th minute substitute and scored one of the penalties in the shootout, after the game was tied 2-2 in regulation.
Gallardo refused to talk about the game when asked by reporters this week.
“I don’t want to talk about something that happened 10 years ago,” he said through an interpreter, though he did have kind words for Beckham. “He’s obviously a great player and [has] shown that on every team he’s been on and he can read [the game] really well.”
At the 2002 World Cup in Japan, Gallardo watched from the bench as Beckham buried a 44th-minute penalty kick to earn revenge.
Beckham remembers Gallardo.
“I know he’s a good player,” Beckham said. “He’s good on the ball and he’s a hard player to play against. We are well aware of his talent.”
Games between England and Argentina have been testy affairs ever since Diego Maradona used his hand to score a goal at the 1986 World Cup, with the memory of the Falklands War still fresh in the minds of Argentines.
“Always against England, because of the problems they have with us, it’s a game you always want to win so you don’t forget those games,” United Argentine defender Gonzalo Peralta said.
The two players bring a lot to MLS. The graceful Gallardo is an accurate passer. Beckham brings media attention and is arguably the best crosser in the world.
The Galaxy didn’t get much for their money with an injured Beckham last year. He played a combined 252 minutes in five MLS games and notched two assists. This year, Beckham has started in 12 games, scored four goals and tallied six assists.
“He’s had a good season,” Galaxy coach Ruud Gullit said. “I don’t know what he did last season, but I’m happy with his performance.”
The hype surrounding Sunday’s game surprised Gallardo.
“It’s weird that a game is getting so much attention because where I’m from every game is like this,” he said.
Beckham remembers last year’s meeting between the teams, which United won 1-0 before a sold-out crowd of 46,000, with mixed feelings.
“The atmosphere of the fans was electric,” Beckham said. “It was a night game and raining. It was my first game in MLS and it was nice. Obviously one of the bad memories was losing the game. This year hopefully we can beat them.”
Gallardo may have other ideas.