Frank Lampard’s imperfect time at New York City FC

IMAGE, MATT KREMKAU FOR EMPIRE OF SOCCER

by CHRISTIAN ARAOS

Was he the worst Designated Player in history? Not by a long shot. Was he the best MLS has ever seen? Clearly not.

But when the dust settles, Frank Lampard will go down as a perfectly imperfect Designated Player whom — at the very least — fulfilled New York City FC’s initial objectives.

Lampard played less than a full season over more than two years for NYCFC. In that time, he managed to score 15 goals — a feat that made him a leading figure in the Bronx Blues’ run to the postseason.

But setbacks muddy the accomplishments of those achievements. Maybe if he had been able to stay healthy, he’d have more of the on-field production — a fact that makes debating his legacy moot. Maybe if City Football Group didn’t bungle his contract and delayed his debut until midway through the 2015 season, then 2016 wouldn’t have been about atonement. Maybe if his injuries weren’t treated like state secrets, fans would have been more apt to embrace the player. Maybe not.

In that sense, Lampard best personifies his club — a second year startup transitioning from ad hoc operations into local institution.

Despite his issues, Lampard’s professionalism shone through the injuries, divisive contract controversies and the club’s up-and-down performances year over year. But the time away from the spotlight limited his influence. The bitterness over Lampardgate stewed as City’s first season came to its inglorious end. A preseason calf injury that was slow to heal may have allowed Lampard to be Jack Harrison’s mentor this season, but his healing process was cast in an awful light as he was seen more on British game shows than in American soccer coverage.

Don’t forget that Lampard was booed in his first appearance this year — a fact covered up in the ensuing goal bonanza from the legendary Chelsea playmaker. Harrison took to Instagram to defend Lampard during that contentious time, but the episode showed just how much of a disconnect there was between how Lampard was seen inside NYCFC and the impression he was leaving outside the team.

He was able to redeem himself to the fans with his strong performances over the summer and it allowed the club to make up for lost time, repackaging him as one of their leading faces. It was a success that culminated with Lampard scoring a brace on September 1 — a day officially recognized by New York City as “Frank Lampard Day.”

The distance between Lampard and his teammates that dominated 2015 eroded in 2016. Lampard went from being on an island to being a respected part of the locker room and a face for the organization. He stood up for teammates on the field and spoke lucidly to the team’s ups and downs this year. He understood how to use his ability to contribute goals as his body deteriorated.

No longer an ox, he became a sage.

Thanks to his strong play this summer and successful image repair, City could frame Lampard’s departure as a fond farewell. If not, we could have had another terse press release. Although his season ended as it started with a 7–0 defeat, Lampard will bring smiles and inspire cheers whenever he returns to Yankee Stadium.

For that, his time at NYCFC was a success.

What’s next for Lampard is anyone’s guess. It’s hard to imagine he will try to play somewhere else next year but he is the type of player who would take that chance — even if it’s just for wanderlust. More likely, he will retire and attempt a transition into coaching. It will be intriguing to see if Lampard follows this path within City Football Group. He would be following his last coach down this road if that were the case. However, he has stronger connections to Chelsea and visited them earlier this year, perhaps indicating the path he prefers.

For now, all we can do is judge his time with New York City FC. Despite his issues, he will probably be held up as a foundational pillar of the team. At the same time, the lingering “what if?” stemming from his countless injuries and contractual issues will always shroud his stay.

It is an imperfect legacy but he was an imperfect player who spent the past two years at an imperfect club. And that may be the best gauge of his stay in the United States.