You never get a second chance to make a first impression, especially in New York City, which doesn’t play second fiddle to anybody.
Which is why the decision by Manchester City owners on Wednesday to have Frank Lampard stay in England until May—and miss at least the first three months of NYCFC’s inaugural MLS season—is a slap in the face to MLS and to the more than 11,000 New York City fans who’ve bought season tickets for the team.
At 36, Lampard is having a better-than-expected season for Man City, which had planned to keep Lampard until December 31. That’s great for Lampard and City and (theoretically) NYCFC, which announced Lampard as one of its marquee players (along with David Villa) for its first season, starting in March.
But Man City’s leadership decided to keep Lampard until the end of the Premier League season, not least because City needs talented depth in its fight in the English Premier League and UEFA Champions League.
It made sense for Lampard to stay until, say, mid-February, which would help Man City and allow him to join NYCFC for the start of the MLS season. But when it came to keeping him in England until June, the Lampard decision was always going to be a measuring stick for whether Man City’s leadership takes MLS and those New York season-ticket holders seriously.
Now we have an answer: They don’t.
In fact, NYCFC might as well buy signs around Gotham showing Lampard, Man City chief executive Ferran Soriano and Man City owner Sheikh Mansour flipping the bird to New Yorkers. That’s basically what they’re doing with this decision.
From a competitive standpoint, losing Lampard for the first three months of the MLS season may not be that big of a deal for NYCFC. The MLS regular season doesn't mean much, anyway, with 12 of 20 teams making the playoffs in 2015.
But that’s not the point. What matters here are the messages the Lampard decision is sending to New York fans. That NYCFC is a farm team for Man City (and perhaps is being used as a way to circumvent UEFA’s Financial Fair Play rules). That those 11,000-plus season-ticket holders are being taken for granted. And that New York City is playing second fiddle.
An NYCFC source told SI.com on Wednesday that Man City owns Lampard's contract, not NYCFC, which means he's not in fact on loan there. But that doesn't take away fromt he message being sent and only suggests that NYCFC and Man City were misleading the public all along.
It might be different if this was NYCFC’s third season, but it’s the first season, and the club has gone to great lengths to promote Lampard’s arrival in March.
How important is it for soccer teams to make a good first impression in New York? Well, consider the first-ever game for the MetroStars (now the New York Red Bulls) in 1996. With memories of the great New York Cosmos teams of Pelé, Giorgio Chinaglia and Franz Beckenbauer in their heads, a crowd of 46,826 fans showed up at Giants Stadium for the MetroStars debut in ‘96.
But what they saw wasn’t pretty. The MetroStars lost that opening game 1-0 in the final minutes when defender Nicola Caricola knocked the ball into his own net. Thus began the Curse of Caricola. The MetroStars/Red Bulls have never won an MLS Cup title, and in 19 years of existence the franchise has had bigger stand-alone crowds than the one for that opening game on only two occasions.
In other words, you never get a second chance to make a first impression, especially in New York City. In the wake of the Lampard decision, the only way NYCFC can save face now is by making an equivalent signing who could start the season with the team in March.
But if I was an NYCFC season-ticket holder, I’d be demanding a refund today.