(Long Island, NY) It might not be baseball or football just yet. The sport of soccer has a long way to go in terms of popularity in the United States. A few more nights like last weekend at Giants Stadium will make that go a long way.
On August 18, a crowd of 66, 237 was in attendance for a Red Bulls – Los Angeles Galaxy match. Tailgaters lined the parking lot unlike all of the previous home games for the former MetroStars, kicking soccer balls around and cooking up on their barbeques. Judging by the size of the crowd, if someone didn’t look hard enough, they would have thought they were gathered for a Giants or Jets home game.
But this group was there for one reason – David Beckham, the international soccer star, who was making his first appearance as a member of MLS in the New York-Metropolitan area.
The former Manchester United midfielder did not disappoint, either. He played the full 90 minutes on a gimpy left ankle and had two pretty assists, setting up teammate Carlos Pavon’s first two career MLS goals for a 2-1 advantage. His sharp play changed the cheers that he heard for the first 10 minutes into boos. “It’s something that I’ve heard before,” said Beckham. “It’s part and parcel of playing at away grounds.”
“Beckham delivers a great ball,” Red Bulls head coach Bruce Arena said. “You see what a difference he makes for the LA team in their last two games.”
Coming into the contest, Beckham had played sparingly due to the ankle injury and had played only 18 minutes in the Galaxy’s last three contests. He scored his first goal on the season in a 2-0 win versus D.C. United four days prior to the Red Bulls game.
The game went back and forth as New York got things level with a score by Clint Mathis in stoppage time at the end of the first half. Teenage sensation Jozy Altidore put New York ahead by two with goals in the 49th and 70th minutes, only to see Los Angeles storm back to knot things up with tallys from Landon Donovan (71’) and Edson Buddle (82’).
In the 88th minute, Juan Pablo Angel scored his second goal of the game to put the Red Bulls ahead for good. After four minutes of stoppage time came and went, the crowd stood up and cheered as the players made their way into the tunnel, totally exhausted from a competitive struggle.
Following the game, Beckham reflected on what drawing large crowds means to growing the sport in America. “It’s great for the fans, it’s great for the league,” he said. “Hopefully it continues. This is what this sport needs in America. I’m very honored of the amount of people that turned out.”
With the Red Bulls averaging only just over 11, 000 fans per game, attracting six times that amount would indicate that first-timers and non-soccer fans made up a good portion. “Those first-timers that came out tonight, they couldn’t have watched a better game,” said Angel.
“It’s great for the fans, it’s great for the league,” Beckham said. “I’m very happy people want to come and see the game even if a lot of the people in the stands aren’t soccer fans.”
As an ambassador for the game, Beckham looks and plays the part well. Perhaps he can even be the first of many worldwide soccer stars to ply their trade in MLS. “I would advise anyone to give it a go and come and enjoy playing here,” said Beckham.
If that ever occurs, soccer may be added to that proverbial list.