Frank Lampard finally makes his MLS move with New York City FC
The bond between Frank Lampard and Chelsea delayed his expected arrival in MLS for several years. The mutual interest between the parties -- Lampard as the player intrigued by a fresh challenge, MLS as the league always searching for stars -- always simmered without coming to fruition.
The extended courtship worked out well enough for Lampard. He extended his career at Chelsea and with England for a year or two longer than many expected. He parted ways with the club earlier this summer at a natural point and played in a third and final World Cup to essentially close his international career.
Once those obligations concluded, Lampard finally consummated his interest in MLS and sealed the long-rumored deal to join New York City FC as its second Designated Player. His two-year contract will carry him through to the end of 2017 and provide him with a chance at long last to live in the United States.
“It was always an interesting option, but it was one I never took up,” Lampard said during a conference call on Thursday afternoon. “Having spoken to the people from New York City, listened to their ideas, their vision and the challenges of setting up a new team from scratch and the timing for me personally, it was just a great match. It was an easy decision for me to make.”
It did not prove much more difficult for NYCFC, though the optics of Lampard’s involvement with an unsavory incident with American tourists in the aftermath of 9/11 make him an awkward fit in this particular community. Lampard flatly denied accosting American tourists in London more than a decade ago during interviews with the New York Post and several other New York-based outlets on Thursday. He also took issue with the characterization of the imbroglio in the British press, but he must atone nevertheless to fulfill his duties as a polished and willing spokesperson for this nascent club.
The vastly experienced midfielder, 36, carries as much weight off the field as he does on it now. He boasts the intelligence and the technical ability to exert a genuine impact next year at this advanced stage in his career, but head coach Jason Kreis must accommodate him intelligently within his shape and use him judiciously during the grueling and protracted MLS season. Most importantly, he provides a reliable touchstone for a side in need of his nous to navigate through the thicket of an expansion season.
“He’s a fantastic soccer player,” Kreis said. “He’s proven at all different levels what he is capable of doing on a soccer pitch. What he will be capable of doing for us as far as teambuilding and leadership are probably the most important things that we are considering right now.”
The role of elder statesman and rallying point suits Lampard well at this juncture. He will not deliver MLS Cup or guarantee success by himself. It isn’t his job. He is instead a leader and a symbol first and foremost. He must rise to the occasion once more to ensure NYCFC establishes firm footing in its debut season and fosters the sort of bonds required to connect with this city.
“I look forward to all of the challenges of it,” Lampard said. “The big thing for me on the football side is my experience. It’s not only on the pitch – which I’ll try and do and what I’ve tried to do for many years with Chelsea – but to create a spirit in the dressing room.”
It is, as Lampard and Kreis noted during the introductory press conference, about ticking off all of the boxes now. All of the factors that prompted this partnership must persist over the next two years in order to make it a success. It is by no means an easy brief given the difficulty of obtaining relevance in New York City and the increasing demands and standards in the league, but it is the task ahead for both club and player.
Lampard would have made it easier on himself by taking this step a couple of years ago. It will prove more difficult now in the winter of his career, but it is still within his capabilities on and off the field. He must rely on his new club and his teammates to help him thrive in his final substantive act.
The real benchmark will arrive when his contract concludes and he takes stock of the collective identity forged during his time with NYCFC. He waited a while to make the leap to America. He must ensure he leaves a substantial mark on his new club to make the belated plunge worthwhile.
“I've seen a real long-term plan from everyone involved in the club. I wanted to be a part of that. I want to test myself. I want to carry on challenging myself. I want to be that leader, that person - not just someone on the pitch, but someone off the pitch who can help make these things happen.”