By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Apr 15, 2016) US Soccer Players – If it was almost any other team, it would be a massive black eye.
If it was almost any other team, the failure would damage the brand.
If it was almost any other team, the spotlight would be on a player taking up a large chunk of the payroll despite failing to meet expectations.
If it was almost any other team, the coach would have to answer questions about that player, and only that player, day after day.
If it was almost any other team and not than the richest team in the league, not a team that has two other accomplished European stars, not a team lead by a head coach who himself is an accomplished European star, the disaster that is Frank Lampard’s tenure with New York City FC would be a much bigger deal. A much, much bigger deal. Perhaps even the dominant storyline of the 2016 season.
As it is, Lampard’s absence from the NYCFC lineup, coming off a season in which he played just 10 games, is little more than an annoying side story in the land of the New York Blues. That speaks not just to the uniqueness of NYCFC as an American soccer club, but to the maturation of Major League Soccer as a whole. The second year club isn’t a one-man show and has plenty to talk about outside of Lampard’s status to prevent the English midfielder from dominating the discussion.
Per Empire of Soccer, NYCFC is giving Lampard “time off” to recover from the injury (a wonky calf muscle) that has thus far kept him from stepping on the field during an MLS game in 2016. It’s not a huge step to take this news as NYCFC admitting that Lampard isn’t close to returning to the lineup. When he does, and giving him the benefit of the doubt here, he’ll have plenty to prove in MLS. This wasn’t the story NYCFC or Lamparad expected to have to tell.
Lampard has missed so much time at this point that his place on a list of the worst DP signings is essentially secure. Where he lands on such a list is up for debate, but it’s not far down from the top. Again, in fairness to the situation, there’s still the relationship between expectations and results for any player. If salary plays a part in how we rate DPs, then Lampard is a contender for elite DP disaster status.
At this point, Lampard is little more than a paid spokesman for NYCFC, making public appearances and tasked with saying nice things about the talent on the club’s roster.
What’s odd about the situation with NYCFC is whether or not this is really a problem for the club. There’s some general grousing among the faithful because no fan likes to see a player on the payroll in a salary cap league make zero impact on the team. That said, with so much to distract them (much of it good) and the culture of the club resolving itself in rapid fashion, there’s not much reason to waste angst on Lampard.
Five years ago, that would have been impossible. Even LA, which led the way on the DP evolution and has never been without a full compliment of DPs for very long, still suffers troublesome PR when one of their highest paid players isn’t delivering. As we speak, Lampard’s former England teammate Steven Gerrard is on the shelf for the Galaxy. Combined with the very disappointing returns from Giovani dos Santos and the injury to Robbie Keane, Gerrard ineffective play and proneness to injury have sullied LA’s reputation as savvy operators within the MLS structure. It’s not particularly fair to LA to compare them to NYCFC (who has no history of DP signings by which to judge), but the fact remains that swinging and missing means a perception black eye.
Still, the Dos Santos and Gerrard struggles don’t seem nearly as overwhelming as they might have in the early years of the DP rule.
The power of Pirlo, Villa, Diskerud, even Poku and McNamara is helping to overshadow the disappointment of Lampard. This feels as much like MLS “growing up” as it does NYCFC doing a reasonable job filling out the rest of their roster with players who can command the spotlight or foster cultish fan support. Once upon a time, DPs were the only names in a given team that many in the media deemed worthy of attention. If those DPs played poorly or sat out for long stretches with injuries, those developments dominated conversation, regardless of anything else happening with the team. When one, two, or three players can eat up so much of the salary budget, it’s easy for them to obscure other interesting stories.
Perhaps it’s the familiarity with the DP mechanism after nearly a decade or an improvement in the ability of the soccer media to dig deeper for stories. Maybe MLS teams are filling out their lineups with more interesting names. Or, maybe it’s simply that the talent is getting good enough at the lower salary levels to merit focus even with the well-heeled European stars in the mix.
Whatever it is, it’s working for NYCFC. It’s a fascinating team with a fascinating coach that is able to keep people talking about the good things happening while dealing with one of the more notable DP failure in the DP rule’s relatively short history.
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