Joe Destefano feared his mom was giving him clothes for his 16th birthday last month. Those fears seemed to be confirmed when he saw the box for his present.
But once he opened it, he saw four tickets to last night’s D.C. United-Los Angeles Galaxy game at RFK Stadium in which the anticipation wasn’t who would win but whether David Beckham would make his MLS debut.
“I actually begged the tickets for his birthday,” said his mother Diane Destefano, of Newark, Del. “I know he really wanted to come and see David play. Whether he plays or not, I don’t know.”
Joe interrupted: “It doesn’t matter.”
That seemed to be the sentiment for the 46,686 fans who hoped to see Beckham play.
Beckham has been limited with an ankle injury since joining the Galaxy, playing just 16 minutes in a friendly against Chelsea on July 21. But he finally made his league debut in the 72nd minute of United’s 1-0 victory.
Fred Matthes, United’s director of ticket operations, said about 15,000 of the fans were first-timers. He also said he received only “two dozen or less” complaints from customers about the possibility of Beckham sitting on the bench.
“How many calls did we get in January or February just to buy tickets?” Matthes said. “Thousands. The phones were ringing off the hook, so we’ll take a couple dozen people who were upset they might not see him play.”
Beckham was met with boos from fans at Toronto FC last Sunday. But the worst reception he received last night was from a banner that read: “We can sing better than your wife” — a reference to Victoria “Posh Spice” Beckham.
MLS commissioner Don Garber was in attendance, just as he was last Sunday and in the friendly against Chelsea — because ESPN televised both of those games too.
He said the league wasn’t at fault for Beckham’s injury, despite a marketing blitz that rarely mentioned the injury, which Beckham suffered with Real Madrid in June. Garber said he has spoken with Beckham several times since he joined the Galaxy but hasn’t discussed his injury.
“People are disappointed,” Garber said. “We all are, but that’s the reality in professional sports. Nobody’s been promised that David was playing. We want him to get on the field, but we want him to get better.”
But Beckham’s injury and the prospect of him playing last night didn’t matter.
James Lambert, the membership director of the D.C. United fan group “The Screaming Eagles” said Beckham’s arrival alone has helped his group talk with casual fans about the sport.
He said 40 new members signed up yesterday and that he had to arrive at RFK Stadium at 10 a.m. — three hours earlier than the start time for the group’s tailgate.
“One of the exciting things about Beckham coming to the area is you can turn on the sports fan to soccer,” Lambert said. “A lot of times there is a mental block to get them to come out in the first place and enjoy it. Today, I’ve been able to talk to those people about membership.”
David Mackenzie of the District was trying to sell two extra tickets before the match yesterday because two of his other friends had a prior commitment. He had trouble selling them online, despite the demand.
“Some people were backing out,” Mackenzie said. “There were warning signs saying don’t buy the tickets because Beckham won’t play.”
Steve Chapman of Ashland, Va., banged a D.C. United drum outside RFK Stadium two hours before the match.
Chapman, who has attended United’s home games since the league started in 1996, correctly predicted Beckham would enter the game at about the 70th minute. He also said last night’s atmosphere was similar to United’s first MLS Cup victory.
But Chapman thought Beckham’s participation shouldn’t play a factor in a fan’s interest in soccer.
“In all honesty, the less knowledgeable fans don’t understand it,” Chapman said. “You don’t put a player in unless they’re 95 percent. You risk further injury and you risk your team losing. The league is doing what’s best for David Beckham, not what’s best for marketing or promotions.”
Beckham said he puts enough pressure on himself.
“There’s a certain amount of pressure because everybody has been talking about how I’ve come to the MLS and not played yet,” he said. “I don’t feel pressure in that sense. I put pressure on myself to get back and to get fit. But it’s great to be out here because it’s not nice to disappoint the fans who paid a lot of money to come see the games.”