- Frank Lampard didn't cover himself in glory in his first year in MLS, but he's turning the tide with his on-field play.
If you’ve followed Major League Soccer for any significant length of time, chances are you’re well aware of how quickly a team’s fortunes can change. The Portland Timbers were nothing special last season, until a late surge and an especially-epic penalty shootout put the team on a path to its first MLS Cup. In 2014, the New England Revolution memorably followed up a five-game winning streak with an eight-game losing streak and wound up as league runner-up. These are just two recent examples of a normal occurrence: Teams are good, until they’re not. Or vice versa.
The path with players has rarely been so quickly redemptive. It seems that MLS players, especially foreign signings, either fit right in, or face an especially difficult road. If they struggle at first, it’s rare that a player, regardless of experience, figures it all out in the space of a season, let alone in just a handful of games.
All of which is to say: What Frank Lampard is doing for NYCFC the last several weeks is truly special, and this week’s hat trick (the first in NYCFC history) against the Colorado Rapids is only the latest example. Just a handful of weeks ago, the former Chelsea and England player was being talked about alongside Lothar Mattaüs and Rafa Marquez as one of the league’s worst signings ever. Now he’s been arguably NYCFC’s best player as it has stormed into Eastern Conference contention. The numbers say nearly everything about how big of a turnaround this has been:
|Before the 2016 international break||Since 2016 international break|
|Appearances: 13||Appearances: 8|
|Minutes played: 777 (about 59/game)||Minutes played: 644 (about 80/game)|
|Goals: 3||Goals: 8|
|Assists: 1||Assists: 1|
|Shots on goal: 4||Shots on goal: 13|
What those numbers don’t show is how clearly Lampard’s standing has changed both within the locker room and in the heart of the club itself. It’s no small point that the midfielder wore the captain’s armband on Sunday. David Villa may have been suspended, but Andrea Pirlo played, as did numerous other figures in the locker room whose on-field experience with the short-lived club far eclipse that of Lampard. But watching NYCFC’s demolition of Colorado, it became clear that despite all his troubles earlier in his career, Lampard has the respect of his teammates. He directed traffic, took the reins when needed, and generally played like the seasoned leader in soccer we all knew him to be before he arrived in New York City.
In the past, Lampard, coach Patrick Vieira, and others at NYCFC posited any number of tried-and-true explanations for why NYCFC’s $6 million man was performing so ridiculously below his price tag (if he was performing on the field at all following his protracted Manchester City tenure). Either Lampard simply wasn’t fully fit before, or he needed time to get his feet under him in a new country, or he still needed to adapt to MLS’s playing style. With negative goodwill built up based on the manner of his arrival, these rang as hollow excuses.
If the Lampard we’ve seen recently isn’t a mirage, it may be time we start thinking about him differently.
Offensive player of the week: Joao Plata, Real Salt Lake
Lampard is the obvious choice here, but everything you need to know about his week is written above. Sebastian Giovinco is a solid second option (a goal and two assists vs. Columbus), but he’s won this award in the recent past. So instead I’m giving it to Real Salt Lake’s diminutive attacker Joao Plata, who scored what is in my opinion the best goal of the week. Check out this screamer!
Honorable mention goes to Javier Morales, who started the move that resulted in Plata’s stunner, then scored a stunner of his own to put RSL ahead of the Philadelphia Union. Good luck finding a better twosome of goals in a single game this MLS season.
Defensive player of the week: Jelle Van Damme, Los Angeles Galaxy
Van Damme has been great for the Galaxy all year, not just because of his strong play at the back but also the cultured service he has provided the Galaxy’s forwards via long balls. However, it was on the defensive end where Van Damme really shone on Sunday, making two game-saving goal-line clearances, including this block of a point-blank Jordan Morris opportunity that I still can’t believe actually happened:
This one, on Clint Dempsey, wasn’t bad either. Come for the goal-line clearance, stay for the Adrian Healey voice crack: