Sounders FC

MLS playoffs: Qwest atmosphere ‘special’ to Beckham

Sounders FC fans will finally get a look at Major League Soccer’s most famous player on Sunday.

But the opposite is also true, and David Beckham says he’s excited about finally getting to play in front of MLS’ most heralded fans.

“When we realized we were playing Seattle I was really pleased, because I’ve played on the field before, but not played against Seattle in Seattle,” Beckham said Thursday in a phone interview. “It’s going to be good. I’ve heard about the atmosphere, I’ve heard what the fans are like. To fill that stadium week in and week out is a special thing. I’ve always admired the way (Sounders owner) Joe Roth and everyone has brought this franchise into the league.”

In 2006, Beckham played before a crowd of 66,830 at Qwest Field when Real Madrid met D.C. United in a friendly. He was there again last November when 46,011 watched Real Salt Lake beat his Los Angeles Galaxy in the MLS Cup final.

But when the Galaxy visited the Sounders last season, he was on loan to AC Milan. And he was recovering from an Achilles’ injury when Los Angeles visited earlier this season.

However, he returned to the Galaxy lineup for the last seven games of the regular season, and will be on the pitch – though still, he says, at less than full fitness – at 5 p.m. Sunday when L.A. and Seattle begin their home-and-away aggregate-score playoff series.

Even with the high stakes, this could be the smallest crowd yet to see the former Manchester United and English national team star at Qwest.

About 34,000 tickets have been sold. That’s an exceptional crowd in a league that averages 16,675 fans per game. But it remains below the Sounders’ regular-season average of 36,173, and also the MLS quarterfinal-record 37,807 that turned out last season to watch the Sounders’ home playoff match against Houston.

“I think that our 32,000 season-ticker holders are pretty focused on us just beating them,” general manager Adrian Hanauer said. “But there certainly is an element of glitz, a flash that comes in when you get a guy like David Beckham – and Landon Donovan and Edson Buddle and some of their quality coming into the stadium. I imagine there will be some people on the fence, and now that Beckham is coming, they’re going to make sure that they’re in the stadium.”

That’s one of the reasons Beckham joined MLS in 2007 – and is being paid $6.5 million this season, according to the MLS Players Union. He came not just to launch his famously bending set pieces, but also to help raise the profile of the sport in North America.

To a degree, he has done that. His No. 23 jersey is the best-selling in MLS history. The Galaxy remains the top-drawing road show in the league, averaging 18,522 per game. And Los Angeles finished this season with the second-highest average home attendance in MLS: 21,463.

At the top, of course, is Seattle – whose attendance would rank in the middle of the English Premier League – just ahead of Tottenham, just behind Aston Villa.

“That’s saying something about what they’ve done in Seattle,” Beckham said. “And it’s what every franchise wants, obviously. To have that in this league is special. (The Galaxy) sell out almost every game, but around the league it doesn’t happen that often. What we’re doing and what Seattle is doing is more like the European leagues, where they’ll sell out week in and week out.”

Beckham was asked if those crowds would be possible without players like himself, who provide not only goals and assists but also name recognition and star power.

“I’m not into the whole getting credit for things,” he said. “I’m here to try to help the league and help the Galaxy be successful. I think around the MLS we’ve done that with the interest that has been raised. I definitely think there is a lot more hard work to do and a lot more to achieve. The standard is higher here than people realize. And speaking with (designated players Thierry Henry and Rafael Marquez of New York), them coming over here helps raise the profile of the game.

“And once more players start doing that, then we will have competition with the European leagues.”

Don Ruiz, 253-597-8808