NEW YORK – When Frank Lampard appeared on Yankee Stadium’s jumbotron alongside Italian legend Andrea Pirlo during New York City FC’s recent home match against the crosstown rival Red Bulls, the home crowd erupted in jubilant applause. Yet, when the noise became audible, “We want Pirlo!” was clearly the chant that echoed throughout the stadium.
The fans' chants seemed to favor Pirlo over Lampard, but they weren’t choosing between the two stars. The Pirlo speculation leading up to his eventual signing was only a couple months old.
Lampard's is an entirely different story. The English veteran was a marquee signing for NYCFC last summer–so we thought–but then embarked on a season-long stay with Manchester City through the spring that confounded the American soccer community as it unfolded. At long last, he'll make his debut for NYCFC against Toronto FC on Sunday.
[Editor's Note: NYCFC ruled Lampard out for the match Friday after he injured his calf in training]
He is rested, excited and ready to become the talk of the town for all the right reasons.
“I feel good. I don’t feel fatigue or tired in the mind or anything,” Lampard told SI.com this week. “The whole part of it being such a new challenge to me has put a spring in my step, if anything.”
It’s been a long road to this point. When the team announced Lampard’s acquisition last summer, he was part of the club's initial big splash. Spanish forward David Villa signed first, but Lampard following suit was a statement to the masses that NYCFC was making a real attempt to put a special product on the field.
The story is well documented from there.
Lampard, as it turned out, had never signed a contract with NYCFC, not until January. He went to Manchester City for the start of the Premier League season, performed well, and wound up remaining there for the duration of the campaign. At that point, Lampard, from across the Atlantic, became the face of the NYCFC’s growing perception among misled and disappointed fans and detractors alike that it was just a pawn for Manchester City and City Football Group as a whole.
“I’ve been watching from afar, particularly when the team was losing a few games early [in the] season. It was difficult for me not to be here. I’d like to think I’m quite a straight fellow and my word was to sign for New York,” Lampard said. “I’m not trying to wipe my hands of it. I am a man. I make my own decisions. I just felt right to carry on playing [for the rest of the EPL season].”
Lampard played well for Manchester City in the first half of the EPL season; he scored six goals in 17 total appearances for the defending league champions when his extension was announced during the holiday season.
The significant decrease in his playing time that followed the New Year was even more of a surprise to Lampard than anyone else, given his decision to stay in Manchester.
“I did get slightly frustrated through January, February, March; I’m not going to lie. A footballer wants to play games,” Lampard said. “I thought I’d play more matches, obviously. I looked at New York, I knew that’s what I’d signed up for; it was a strange feeling.”
Manchester City is now in his rearview mirror, and Lampard says he’s ready to help change NYCFC’s fortunes. He’s watched the club's inaugural season since March and has paid attention to MLS since David Beckham’s arrival in 2007. He knows that NYCFC has overall had a rough go of things thus far–although it has won four of its last five matches after winning only one of its first 13–but also knows that there is plenty of room for optimism.
“I’m a realist. I look at the squad, I look at the quality we’ve got and the ambition; there’s not ambition here to be a middle-of-the-road team,” Lampard said. “I see an upward curve. It’s easy to say these words, but action is the only thing that will matter.”
On the field, Lampard says the team suffers more from an expansion team’s growing pains than any major deficiency. He says that focus and communication are things that can be improved by time and familiarity.
The fact that the team hasn’t yet found a consistent identity could end up helping Lampard and Pirlo settle into the NYCFC midfield with minimal disturbance.
“We have to be aware that we are coming in halfway though, but with my experience and Andrea’s experience, hopefully we can bring real positives to the team,” Lampard said. “Another important part is, as a Designated Player, to have the right attitude. We have to want to work with the squad and not say ‘here we are, it’s all going to change now.’ That’s not football anywhere.”
Lampard’s strengths, which are getting forward, arriving in the penalty box and scoring goals, mesh well with Pirlo’s ability to pass the ball and control the game.
“He’s probably the best in the world at it and has been for a long time,” Lampard said of Pirlo.
Lampard said he’s gained a lot of respect for Mix Diskerud’s energy and quality on the ball while watching NYCFC during the season’s first half. The potential for a dynamic midfield is there, but Lampard was quick to state the importance of the team as opposed to single players.
“You’ve got different qualities from all of us. I think it’s a nice mix there,” Lampard said, laughing at his own pun. “And not just us three. There are other players. It’s on the manager [Jason Kreis] to put us in the positions to get the best of us.”
The honeymoon phase of Lampard’s NYCFC career, given his first MLS impression, is over.
He’s had his break since the end of Manchester City’s season, but once he kicks the ball for the first time in New York, he’ll be counted on to deliver immediately. NYCFC currently holds the seventh spot in the MLS Eastern Conference standings with 20 points through 18 games.
The club is 15 points below East-leading D.C. United and five points above the cellar-dwelling Chicago fire.
In England, NYCFC’s position is near the point that fans start using the phrase “better luck next year.” Stateside, in the home of the playoffs, Lampard’s optimism is far more justified. The team has plenty of time to find its way to the postseason, and Lampard relishes the pressure on his shoulders to help chart that course.
“I wouldn’t want to come to a club and not have pressure. That means you’re on holiday,” Lampard said. “I’m going to try to play my best every game, win every game. If we all do that, if we take momentum into the back end of the season and we get into the playoffs, you’ve seen it many times before; the team with the momentum at that point can go on and win it. It could be set up very nicely for us if we hit the ground running.”
Lampard is about six months late. There’s nothing he can do to go back and change NYCFC’s first half, but few have the opportunity to make a bigger impact on his team’s second half than he will. Should the team fail to make the playoffs, it will be difficult to avoid the “if Lampard were here on time” arguments. But before he even gets the chance to win over his new fans, he is already eyeing extending his stay.
“I’d like to play for another two to three years,” Lampard said. “I have 18 months here now, I’d love to extend that. The club has already said ‘we’ll see how things go and we’ll talk.’ I’m happy to do that.”
As for another winter foray back to England, Lampard is not even entertaining the question. According to him, from now until the team takes back the uniform, he is Frank Lampard of New York City Football Club.
"No. I can tell you I won’t [go on loan]," Lampard said. "I might train somewhere in England to keep fit, but I won’t be playing anywhere else. I’ve had my time in the Premier League and in Europe. I’m fully focused here. Come November or December, whenever the season ends for us, I think it’ll be important for me to rest and prepare for the preseason next year."