WASHINGTON, D.C. – Even the weather gods played ball as the man hailed as the saviour of American soccer took his first steps into Major League Soccer.
At 8:35 p.m. EDT, David Beckham stepped out onto an RFK Stadium pitch that was being deluged by a torrential downpour – and that suited him just fine. Rather than making conditions more treacherous, the rain storm softened them in the nation's capital, allowing the Los Angeles Galaxy midfielder to complete a trouble-free 20 minutes and properly kick off his U.S. adventure.
After all the hype and drama surrounding Anklegate, a dramatic comeback capped off with a trademark free kick would have brought a dash of Hollywood to a momentous night. However, reality was not conducive to a perfect ending in this much-anticipated league debut.
Beckham was brought on as a substitute with the Galaxy trailing by a goal and chasing shadows as D.C. United made its manpower advantage count following Kyle Martino's red card. Yet despite L.A.'s 1-0 defeat, getting soccer's most famous face onto the field of play was a major accomplishment and something of a milestone for the league and the sport in general.
The ankle problem which kept the former Manchester United and Real Madrid star out of four games led to some criticism from commentators, resentment from supporters and suspicion from conspiracy theorists that sensed a lack of honesty regarding Beckham's true injury status.
Now, all that can be summarily swept aside and the real business of judging Beckham on his on-field performances can get under way.
The 32-year-old was greeted with a resounding reception when he replaced Quavas Kirk and sprinted onto the field in the 71st minute, but he wasted no time getting into the mix – hurtling into a ferocious tackle on Jaime Moreno within seconds of his introduction.
Ankle trouble or not, Beckham was in no mood to hold back. However, the Galaxy struggled to get him the ball in the center of midfield as United skilfully retained possession for long periods.
In the final five minutes, there were tantalizing glimpses of what lies ahead.
First, Beckham sent over an expertly placed free kick from the left, but Carlos Pavon was unable to aim his header on target. With three minutes remaining, he sent Landon Donovan through with a beautiful delivery from within the Galaxy's own half, but referee Jair Marrufo strangely waved "play on" when the U.S. national team star was brought down by goalkeeper Troy Perkins.
At the end, there was some disappointment about the result, and there was also a certain sense of relief over the waiting game being over.
"There is a certain amount of pressure," Beckham said. "People have been talking about how I had come to MLS and not played yet. I didn't feel pressure in that sense but I felt pressure myself to get back playing and get fit.
"That lets all the frustration out that I have had. Just stepping out and seeing the reaction of the people was great. It is a great honor and it feels great to be out there and kicking a ball around again."
Steve McClaren, the coach of England's national team, was in attendance after Beckham called to tell him about improvement in his ankle's condition and that he would likely play Thursday. McClaren spoke with England's former captain after the game and also met with Galaxy coach Frank Yallop and team president Alexi Lalas.
Beckham must still be a doubt for England's friendly against Germany at London's Wembley Stadium on August 22. Before then, he hopes to see action against the New England Revolution on Sunday, at home against D.C. United in the SuperLiga semifinals next Wednesday and away to New York Red Bulls three days later.
The synthetic surface in New England may restrict Beckham's playing time there, but the New York game is pencilled in as a possibility for his first start. For a man with a natural flair for the dramatic, the Big Apple may be a nice option.
First and foremost, Los Angeles must start to pick up some points in a hurry if it is to avoid seeing its already slim playoff hopes disappear altogether. Yallop felt his team was denied one point here by Marrufo, who it must be said does not enjoy the best reputation among MLS players.
"When people miss things in games that cost you points, it is hard to take," said Yallop, referring to a pair of penalty appeals Donovan had rebuffed. "In a game like this it means everything. There is frustration when you put the hard work in, then things get missed."
Yallop must be relieved to finally be talking about real soccer matters instead of bad ankles, scar tissue, massages and ice packs.
For him, and for Beckham – for whom the soccer pitch is where he feels most at home – a sense of normality can return at last.