NEW YORK – The mere presence of midfielder Andrea Pirlo in a New York City FC jersey makes it seem like his signing is an instant masterstroke for the club before he even plays his first minute.
The universally respected and lauded bearded Italian joins MLS fresh off another stellar season with Juventus, and while the expansion club has been better at garnering attention off the field for marquee signings while enduring some disappointing results on it, Pirlo is excited by the challenge of continuing the former trend while changing the latter.
Given a glimpse into Pirlo’s perspective as he enters MLS, it’s clear that’s where the 37-year-old Italian legend’s true value lies. On the pitch, he’s made a career of anticipating play faster than anyone else around him. In similar fashion, Pirlo sees into NYCFC’s future, both short and long term. He sees something special happening in what he calls “the most important city in the world.”
“I’ve always been fascinated by MLS. When I saw that great champions like Kaká, [Steven] Gerrard, [Frank] Lampard, [Giovani] Dos Santos, [Sebastian] Giovinco and of course [David] Beckham joined in, I realized that this league was very well liked in America and wanted to grow,” Pirlo said. “I think that this [league] has a lot of potential for future development.
“To come here to the U.S. was one of my objectives. I feel very, very lucky to have made it not only to the U.S, but [also] to New York City.”
Pirlo first began to contemplate a change of scenery before the Champions League final in early June. Before he and Juventus fell to FC Barcelona 3-1, the decision had been made that win or lose, Pirlo’s time at Juve was done. His first choice for that change was America, New York City specifically. Talks with City Football Group picked up soon after.
“When they spoke to me, I had a great impression right from the start,” Pirlo said. “They really gave me the idea that they were a serious organization that was very important and wanted to grow in the long term, had a vision for the long term.
“I’ve always thought that the MLS was a great situation. I thought anytime would be a good time to join it. I had an opportunity to come to New York and I didn’t think twice.”
NYCFC head coach Jason Kreis is hoping that he can take the vision he and the team front office sold Pirlo and mix it with the maestro’s vision on the field for a winning combination.
Pirlo and Lampard are the co-centerpieces of the team’s summer reinforcements, as the join David Villa in trying to make a push for the postseason from the unenviable position of ninth place in the Eastern Conference standings. When asked about the most difficult aspects of the move from Italy to America and from Serie A to MLS, Pirlo shrugged away the conventional assumptions.
“I’ve always been used to playing 60 games, one every three days. I’ve played on artificial turf; there is artificial turf in Europe as well. There is heat there as well. If its hot for me at 110 degrees Fahrenheit, its hot for the others as well,” Pirlo said. “I think that the physical condition actually will [be] important; I’m coming from one month vacation, so I’ll need to work on that.”
Pirlo’s two-and-a-half year contract was announced on July 6, exactly one month after the Champions League final. He arrived in New York on Tuesday and participated in his first practice on Wednesday. As of Wednesday night, his status is uncertain for Sunday’s home match against Pirlo’s old AC Milan teammate Kaka and Orlando City, but when he does debut, it’ll be interesting to see how quickly he picks up the American style of the game.
Manchester City youth coach Patrick Vieira, a World Cup champion with France in 1998 and veteran of both the English Premier League and Serie A, called the transition from the Italian to the American league more difficult compared to that from England to America because Italy’s style of play is more technical and less physical, while both the EPL and MLS are more physically demanding. Pirlo is less than concerned about the notion; he pointed to his former Juventus teammate Sebastian Giovinco as an example.
“I think that if somebody knows how to play the game, he or she can play anywhere. The ball is the same everywhere, in England, Germany, and the United States, in Italy,” Pirlo said. “It’s just a question of your abilities. Giovinco proved it by scoring what, 12 goals? [The Toronto FC striker scored a hat trick in a 4-4 tie with NYCFC at the team’s last home match. He has 12 goals and nine assists in 18 games this season]”
Pirlo made it perfectly clear; he does not accept any of the reasons that he could fail, because he does not accept the notion that he will fail. He is one of the most decorated active players in the world, yet he didn’t come to America to be a face to attract international talent stateside.
“There is nothing better for a soccer player than the respect and appreciation of his colleagues,” Pirlo said. “But, I haven’t come here to go on retirement. I came here because I want to play and I want to win. I want to do my best. The first objective is always that of winning.”
There are plenty of different challenges to face. Pirlo likened being on a brand new team to his situation at Juventus. After the team was implicated in the infamous calciopoli scandal, it was stripped of its 2004-05 and 2005-06 season titles and relegated to Serie B for the 2006-07 season. Pirlo arrived in 2011, three years after the team returned to Serie A, and helped the club to four straight league titles. He is looking to have exactly the same effect on NYCFC.
“Juventus was coming from a bad series of years. That was a challenge,” Pirlo said. “What’s important to me is that this is a challenge and I'm working for a team that is interested in obtaining important results.”
Then there is the Italian national team, for which Pirlo reinforced his desire to be a part at the 2016 European Championship. He’s fueled by the fact that he will have to play at an extremely high level for NYCFC to draw the eye of Italian head coach Antonio Conte.
“I think that the MLS is just as important as any other national league. Of course Mr. Conte can look at Giovinco, he can look at me, he can look at everybody and then he can choose based on his needs," Pirlo said. “We are available, and the only way we can convince him is to show him what we can do on the field.”