Saturday, August 18, 2007

An M.L.S. Rivalry Begins to Stir

Sports of The Times
August 19, 2007

East Rutherford, N.J.

The category is: Know your North American sports rivalries.

David Beckham is nothing if not astute. When asked to compare the rivalry between the Red Bulls of New York and his Galaxy of Los Angeles, Beckham referred to “the Yankees and Dodgers — am I right here?”

Beckham made his first Major League Soccer start last night and assisted on two goals by Carlos Pavón in the first eight minutes.

As a man who named his firstborn Brooklyn (that holy borough is where he and his wife, Posh Spice, were when they heard they were expecting), Beckham does have a feel for things American, and not only direct deposits into his account, either.

The Yankees and the Dodgers have not met in the so-called World Series since 1981, but they are mythic rivals forever, even though they exist on opposite ends of this large continent. The Galaxy and the Red Bulls have not exactly struck the same sparks in the first 11 years in Major League Soccer, but they are separately emerging from the old conservative game plan.

Beckham, the $32.5 million symbol of new priorities, created the flashbulb-popping, souvenir-shopping frenzy of the huge crowd at Giants Stadium last night, evoking the days when galácticos like Pelé and Beckenbauer and Chinaglia strode the land.

The Red Bulls are taking a different path, stocking up on talent, young and old, as different as the 31-year-old Colombian Juan Pablo Ángel and the 17-year-old American Jozy Altidore.

Rivalries only work when the teams are good. The Galaxy was a horrible team this year, at least until Beckham right-footed a free-kick goal and assisted on another goal in a SuperLiga match Wednesday night.

The Red Bulls are already revived in their first full season under Bruce Arena, who has merely improved the University of Virginia, D.C. United, the United States national team and now the Red Bulls.

Going into this year, the Red Bulls had a record of 134 victories, 157 losses and 47 draws, but before last night they were 9-7-3 in league matches. Arena has no problem with the Beckham model of urban renewal.

“David Beckham is a whole different animal,” Arena said the other day, comparing Beckham with some of the older stars who have played in this league.

“Let’s be fair about David Beckham,” Arena said, as close to gushing as he ever comes. “All right, maybe he wasn’t the FIFA player of the year, but he’s done just about everything else in his career. This guy is the real deal. Maybe he’s not Ronaldinho or Zidane or the Pelés of the world, but he’s fantastic.”

Meanwhile, Arena has put together a potent team with Ángel, from Medellín, and previously a striker for Aston Villa in the English Premier League.

“I always kept tabs on him,” Arena said. “He had a great start with Aston Villa last season, but then they brought in a new coach and all of a sudden he wasn’t playing. I said, We really ought to stay in touch with him. To be honest, I didn’t think we could get him, but he decided he wanted a new challenge.”

New York, which had been searching for the great Colombian hope, now has one in Ángel, who has recorded 10 goals and 3 assists in 13 league games. Part of Ángel’s success comes from being paired with the 6-foot-1, 175-pound Altidore, who turns 18 on Nov. 6. He was born in Livingston, N.J., to parents of Haitian descent, and was already in the hopper when Arena joined the Red Bulls last summer.

“As the national coach, I saw him with the under-17 team,” Arena recalled. “He wasn’t the player one could predict. The first time I met him last July, my first impression was his physical presence. There was no way he was only 16.

“The most impressive thing about him is that he is a bright young man, a respectful young man, very, very unique,” Arena volunteered. “He doesn’t shoot his mouth off, even if he disagrees with you. He listens. He was brought up the right way.”

Arena’s remarks could be taken in the context of Freddy Adu, who played his first league game at 14 and was also a mature young prospect but became impatient when he did not become a star. Now 18, Adu, is playing in Portugal, and more power to him.

Meanwhile, Altidore had five goals and four assists in 14 league games this year, after scoring the Red Bulls’ only goal in last year’s playoffs. (The club has won exactly one playoff series, back in 2000.)

“I hate to talk like this because I think we’ve made so many mistakes with kids with a bright potential,” Arena said. “But having said that, I think he’s a good one, compared to other players around the world.”

Arena noted that his first D.C. United championship team in 1996 had eight or nine national-level players. The Red Bulls have none. The Galaxy has David Beckham. Does that create a Dodgers-Yankees kind of rivalry?

It sold a ton of tickets for last night. Right now, that looks good to the entire league.



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