NEW YORK—New York City Football Club fans have anticipated seeing Frank Lampard take the field at Yankee Stadium for more than a year. That wait came to an end when the Chelsea legend trotted out in the 69th minute of play during New York City Football Club’s match against the Montreal Impact. Over 27,00 fans at the stadium cheered as Lampard replaced Andrew Jacobson and walked onto the field, finally taking his place in the midfield.
Then reality set in. Lampard’s NYCFC debut came and went, but unlike Andrea Pirlo last week, his presence alone was not enough to lift his team to a win as New York fell to Montreal 3–2.
“It would have been nice to come on with the team winning. Considering I haven’t trained much, it would have been better,” said Lampard, who was on a minute restriction of 25 or less as his calf muscle continues to heal. “It was nice to get on pitch. It was my debut. But you always want to get a win, so it takes the gloss off of it a little bit.”
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Not the rosiest words after a long-awaited debut, but Lampard has the exact idea of what this team needs. The pageantry of debuts and unveilings behind them, results and form are now the only things that matter for NYCFC. Neither was good enough on Saturday.
“It was a big moment for me to play. I just want to play more now. Its frustrating to play a game we end up losing and not quite feeling right,” Lampard said. “It’s up to me to put it right and as a team it’s up to us to put right and win games.”
Discussing NYCFC’s roster had involved hypothetical scenarios since the day that David Villa signed as the team’s first official player last summer. Lampard’s debut signifies the end of that era. The roster is now complete; there are no more arrivals to anticipate. Though Saturday’s match was the first time that head coach Jason Kreis had a full deck to work with, the team’s performance was far from the final product that NYCFC hopes to field.
“The performance for me was poor. I know that these are difficult games to play in, but there was another team out there that had more energy and more effort and more commitment than we did for 45 minutes,” Kreis said after the game. “I’m really pleased with the response we had in the second half. And I’m also pleased that our team is coming together. This is not an easy place to be in in the middle of the season and to have as many changes as we’ve had. We need to continue to move forward and make efforts to improve.”
Indeed, even with Villa and Pirlo in the starting 11, NYCFC failed to produce much of anything offensively in the first half. The team created only two scoring chances in the first 45 minutes, and neither shot was on target. Pirlo wasn’t able to impact the match in the ways he did during his debut last week. Villa scored the team’s first goal, a penalty kick in the 68th minute, and when Lampard came on during the following stoppage of play, NYCFC’s three designated players looked primed to take over the game. It just wasn’t to be.
“It wasn’t a great game. As I said last time, it takes time to build the team. Unfortunately we were scored on at the very beginning. But we did our best and we will keep on improving,” Pirlo said, “It takes time to create a closeness and to find the right mechanism as a team altogether.”
Villa shared the assist with Angelino on Tommy McNamara’s goal in the 86th, but that was all the offense NYCFC would muster against Montreal’s defense. The midfield looked crowded and chaotic, and possession was fleeting and non-threatening for much of the game. Communication between the backline and keeper Josh Saunders left much to be desired—the assists that preceded both of Montreal’s two goals in open play came from near the middle of the field. Ignacio Piatti sent Saunders the wrong way on a penalty kick to complete the scoring for the Impact.
"Communication needs to be better. Spacing needs to be better. We need to be a little bit more aware of where everyone is,” Saunders said of himself and the backline. “It takes time, but we don’t have time right now. We don’t have that luxury. We need points. We need to work harder and we need to be better. We will move forward and get better.”
Saunders is right on both points. Villa continues to be the force that drives NYCFC, but it’s going to be awhile before the team fires on all cylinders. The backline is less than a month old, and the play of McNamara and Poku of late leaves Kreis with decisions to make in the midfield now that Lampard is here to command a starting spot.
Meanwhile, Major League Soccer is in the final third of its season. The loss to Montreal cost NYCFC an opportunity to take hold of the sixth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. The teams came into the match tied at 24 points with Orlando City. New York is now outside of the playoffs and coming up of one of the toughest stretches of its season. Three of NYCFC’s next five games are on the road. Its opponents in those matches are the New York Red Bulls, D.C United, L.A Galaxy and Columbus Crew, all of whom are in postseason position.
When he first arrived, Lampard offset his tardiness to the team by saying that he’s here at the most important time in the season. He’s absolutely right. The summer transfer window was always going to be a chaotic time. Lampard’s saga has nothing to do with the backlines struggles, but the team doesn’t have time to wait for it to regain form. The communication, the chemistry, the vision the NYCFC had when it began constructing its roster, it all has to come to fruition now. If it doesn’t, the team might be too far gone by the time it arrives.
Despite all that, despite the loss, there were very positive vibes in Yankee Stadium on Saturday among the fans and players. Lampard’s debut wasn’t overshadowed by concerns over a crowded midfield, integrating another player into the team, or even playoff position. It was about the team’s completion. It was about a vision more than a year in the making coming to life, and the potential of that vision.
“It feels good. You can feel the buzz of the fans. You could see it last week with Pirlo coming on the pitch. You could see it today with Lampard coming on the pitch. You hear it every time David scores a ridiculous goal,” McNamara said. “I think the atmosphere that is created can filter into the rest of the team and can make a big difference over the course of the season.”
That sentiment is out the window now. Results and form are the only things that matter for NYCFC. In those departments, the team has work to do.