The former Chelsea and England star is set to leave the Bronx-based club at the end of the year after a remarkable resurgence saw him go from being labelled the worst signing in MLS history to one of the league's top midfielders.
With New York City FC’s first taste of the MLS Cup Playoffs ending with a dismal 7-0 aggregate defeat to Toronto FC in the Eastern Conference semi-finals, the second-year franchise now head into the offseason with plenty of burning issues to be addressed.
Frank Lampard played the full 90 minutes of the 5-0 thumping at Yankee Stadium earlier this month after a calf injury limited him to only a brief cameo in the first-leg defeat, but one of the club’s first orders of business over the winter will be finding a replacement to fill his spot in the centre of the park.
With his contract expiring at the end of December, the 38-year-old midfielder confirmed on Monday afternoon that he would not be extending his stay in the USA and would make an announcement about the next stage of his career shortly.
“As my time at NYCFC comes to an end, I would like to thank so many people for the kindness and support that they have shown me over the last two years,” he said in an official statement on NYCFC.com. “My teammates have been a pleasure to play alongside. The amazing fans have given me incredible support and backing.
“I have very much enjoyed my time, and I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to play for such a great club and in such an incredible city.”
While plenty of NYCFC fans will be saddened at the news of Lampard’s departure, the former Chelsea and England star has faced a long, hard road to win over the respect of his own supporters and the stateside media. His fitness issues before this past summer certainly didn’t help his efforts to prove his worth, but the long-running “loan” fiasco that delayed his debut had a much bigger part to play in why so people across the pond initially struggled to warm to him.
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Officially unveiled as an NYCFC player back in July 2014, Lampard was subsequently announced to be joining sister club Manchester City on a six-month loan deal, intended to end in time for him to link up with the then-expansion franchise for the start of their first-ever preseason. Just a few weeks before his projected arrival, however, it emerged that the experienced middle man had never actually signed with the US outfit but rather had agreed “a head of terms commitment” before penning a short-term contract at the Etihad Stadium until 31 December. At the same time, an impressive run of form for Manuel Pellegrini’s men also prompted City to extend his deal until the end of the 2014-15 Premier League season, causing him to miss the first half of NYCFC’s inaugural campaign. Needless to say, having seemingly treated MLS with such disregard, those in the US did not react kindly.
By the time he arrived in New York in July 2015 after barely featuring for City since early January, Lampard was already facing mounting criticism and being questioned over his commitment to his new club. To make matters worse, he was also carrying a nagging calf injury that would hamper his impact for the next few months, as neither he nor fellow newcomer Andrea Pirlo proved able to deliver the performances needed to lift Jason Kreis’ struggling side up the Eastern Conference standings. The ex-England international eventually managed to produce some solid displays during the run-in once fully fit, recording three goals and an assist over the last six games, but the damage had already been done by that point as the club ultimately finished 12 points outside the playoff places in eighth.
With the chance to get a proper preseason under his belt, Lampard’s first full year in the States was expected to be more fruitful than his forgettable 2015 campaign, but things got off to a terrible start when he suffered another calf injury that forced him to miss the opening 12 games of the season. In the meantime, the three-time Premier League winner was also being labelled “the worst signing in MLS history” by the press as reports emerged that he had agreed to appear as a pundit on the BBC’s Euro 2016 coverage. With his focus seemingly on launching his TV career rather than NYCFC, the overwhelming sentiment was that he should simply put everyone out of their misery and retire, thereby taking his $6 million-per-year contract off the club’s books.
When he eventually made his season debut in May, the circumstances could not have been worse. Brought on for the last 15 minutes of the embarrassing 7-0 derby defeat at home to the New York Red Bulls, Lampard was booed viciously by his own supporters and then suffered the same treatment the following weekend when he came off the bench in a 2-2 draw with Orlando City SC. At the time, it was hard to see any way back for him. Whether he would leave over the summer or spend the rest of the season in a loveless relationship, he appeared doomed to go down as the biggest MLS bust ever.
Then, however, came the turnaround. After finding his way back into the line-up in mid-June, Lampard proceeded to go on a sensational scoring run over the next two months, hitting nine goals in just 10 games while writing himself into NYCFC history by netting the club’s first-ever hat-trick in a 5-1 rout of the high-flying Colorado Rapids. Physically, he was obviously not the same player who once finished runner-up for the Ballon d’Or, but his movement off the ball was still as sharp as ever as defences proved incapable of tracking his trademark late runs into the box. For all the criticism he had taken previously, he now looked like one of the best players in MLS and, what’s more, was part of a side that was competing at the top of the East. Under new head coach Patrick Vieira, NYCFC were thriving with an attack-minded mentality, and while their defensive deficiencies were still glaringly apparent, the link-up play between their midfield and David Villa-led frontline proved more than impressive enough to compensate. Having scored an MLS-leading 62 goals, they ultimately finished second in the standings behind the Red Bulls, securing their maiden playoff appearance and a first-round bye.
Lampard, meanwhile, went on to score three more goals to take his season tally to 12 after winning the league’s Player of the Month award for July, but he would be hit by injury again in September when further calf issues surfaced. After missing three games, he was able to see 17 minutes of action in the regular-season finale against Columbus Crew SC as NYCFC ran out 4-1 winners, but his lack of impact in the subsequent series against Toronto suggested that he was still not fully recovered. Vieira’s men would likely have suffered defeat in almost any scenario given how much they were dominated by the Canadian side over the two legs, but they may well have put up more of a fight had their most experienced player been 100 percent fit.
Despite the defeat to TFC, though, Lampard’s resurgence in 2016 was still no less remarkable. Having turned the jeers into cheers so emphatically, he certainly deserves immense credit for the way he responded to adversity and could yet cap off his season with the Comeback Player of the Year award after earning a spot on the final three-man shortlist.
Whether he opts to hang up his boots or continue his playing career elsewhere remains to be seen at this point, but he can at least leave NYCFC safe in the knowledge that no one will brand him the worst signing in MLS history again.
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