Exclusive: MLS commish Don Garber talks Lampard, Gerrard coming to U.S.

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Over the course of their standout careers in the English Premier League and with the England national team, Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard were inextricably linked in the minds of soccer followers. Lampard, now 36, may be the greatest Chelsea player ever. You could argue the same for Gerrard, 34, with Liverpool. And there was often a national team debate about the two at the height of their powers: Could England find a way to play both of them at the same time?

These days Lampard and Gerrard are at the center of the discussion when it comes to Major League Soccer. And on Saturday night, in his first public comments about both players since things got a little crazy around New Year’s, MLS commissioner Don Garber spoke to SI.com about the status of Lampard and Gerrard and their potential MLS arrivals in 2015.

First, Lampard. Last summer New York City FC, an MLS expansion team starting in March, announced it had signed Lampard as a Designated Player who would start with the team at first kick in March 2015. Last August, Lampard began playing for Manchester City, whose owners run NYCFC, for a period that was supposed to end on December 31 of what most observers thought was a loan from NYCFC.

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But Lampard played better than anyone expected, and last week Man City announced he would be staying with the English club through the end of the Premier League season and joining NYCFC in July. Many of NYCFC’s more than 11,000 season-ticket holders were angry -- the club’s own main supporters group denounced the decision -- and NYCFC came across as a team that’s just a farm club for Man City (and perhaps a dodge for UEFA’s Financial Fair Play rules).

“I could understand why their fans are unhappy, and I do believe [NYCFC] will work hard to build back that trust,” Garber told SI.com from Florida on Saturday night. “They’ve started that process already. I sensed this was coming, and it didn’t surprise me when they ultimately made their decision. You’re dealing with a very unusual set of circumstances. Frank has become one of the most important players in Man City’s season, and he’s scored critical goals to have them tied for first place in the Premier League.

“They were faced with a difficult decision,” added Garber, who said he’s been in touch with Man City CEO Ferran Soriano several times in recent days. “I’m going to be supportive of all our ownership groups, making them aware of my point of view. But we need to work hard now to move forward and recognize that Frank will be joining this team in July along with other Designated Players, who throughout the history of the Designated Player program have almost always joined in July. If there was an error in judgment on this, it was not just announcing that he would come in July and figuring out how to manage the start of the season, no different than what happened with Robbie Keane or Thierry Henry or David Beckham.

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“I think it’s important to say this: These guys [NYCFC] are very committed to MLS and committed to New York … They have made an unprecedented investment in MLS and New York City, and they are going to continue to do so.”

Here, by the way, is MLS’ official version of Lampard’s contract situation: Before he was announced by NYCFC last summer, Lampard entered into an agreement with the City Football Group to play under an MLS contract for 2015 and ’16 and to play for Man City until the end of 2014 under a Man City contract. Now that Lampard’s Man City contract has been extended to the end of this season, he will join NYCFC in July and play under an MLS contract.

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When asked if he’s uncomfortable with the idea that NYCFC is a farm team for Man City, Garber said: “I don’t think it is a farm team for Man City. With this decision, while I can understand people will try to think that, the level of investment that this ownership group is making with the club is massive, and it rivals some of the bigger clubs around the world. This kind of decision is not something in my view that in any way says this is a farm team for Man City. I don’t believe in all my dealings with them that they have led us to believe that’s true.”

As for Gerrard, the Liverpool legend announced on Saturday that he’ll be moving to the United States in July. Garber said, “Discussions are taking place with his representatives, and we expect more details soon. I can’t say anything further than that. Nothing is signed.”

Fair enough. But SI.com was told independently by a source on MLS’ Board of Governors on Saturday that the LA Galaxy is nearing a signature with Gerrard on an 18-month contract worth at least $6 million a year.

Fox Sports’ Keith Costigan first reported that L.A. would be Gerrard’s destination. The Washington Post’s Steven Goff first reported the salary amount. And ESPN’s Jeff Carlisle first reported the extended contract details.

And with that, Gerrard and Lampard, the two English stars who’ve been inextricably linked, appeared on their way to MLS at the same time, in July 2015 -- at least if you believe the people who run MLS.