Late yesterday, Soccer Twitter had one of those moments when everybody seemed to be making the same joke. News had just broken that Steven Gerrard, captain of Liverpool, the club he'd played for since he was eight, would not stay with the club past the end of the season, when his contract is up. The joke went something like this:
It's a riff on another announcement from the New Year's break, this one from Manchester City about another aging English midfielder, Frank Lampard. Lampard left Chelsea last year and signed with New York's new soccer team, NYCFC. Because MLS operates on a different schedule than most of the soccer world, NYCFC won't kick a ball until its opening day on March 8. The plan was for Lampard to stay fit and sharp by spending the period up until the new year with Manchester City, the Premier League super club owned by the same group that owns NYCFC, City Football Group. On New Year's Eve, Manchester City announced there had been a change in plans: Lampard, who has played well for the team, would remain with Manchester City until the end of the Premier League season, in May.
We're only talking about Lampard missing three months of the MLS season, which might seem like an insignificant amount of time, but the handling of Lampard is a massive problem for NYCFC and MLS as a whole.
Lampard is a marquee signing for both entities. He's one of the best goal scoring midfielders of all time. Yesterday, as if rubbing salt in New Yorkers' wounds, he came off the bench in Manchester City's match against Sunderland and scored the winner, his 176th Premier League goal (1 more than Thierry Henry, 58 more than Gerrard).
The team has sold itself with Lampard's image since he put pen to paper. There was a big photo shoot with Lampard dressed in NYCFC's baby blue kit—the results of which are now on billboards around the city. The team managed to sell more than 10,000 season tickets, thanks in large part to the promise of seeing Lampard make his patented late runs into the area and put the ball in the top corner.
There's always been a concern among NYCFC fans and observers that the team would become some kind of farm team for Manchester City. At the NYCFC kit unveiling, fans were uncomfortable with how similar NYCFC's color scheme and overall design was to City's. There's no concern anymore about the relationship between the clubs. There's outrage.
Putting aside the fact that Lampard is still contributing in important ways for City, the more cynical observers have, all along, looked at his stay with City as a way for the team to circumvent UEFA's new Financial Fair Play rules, which seek to reign in the spending power of clubs with bottomless pockets, like City's.
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, for one, was immediately skeptical. Here's what he said in August:
"It is a surprise, but it looks like all of these City clubs will feed the main club, Man City. I heard they want to buy five clubs all over the world. I don't know the rules well enough, but they brought a franchise for 100 million US dollars to play in the States to play next season. At the moment, the players they sign cannot play until next year so they will register them in the clubs where they put them and they can get out on loan. Is it a way to get around the fair-play? I don't know. We are happy to dedicate the money to just run our club. There is not a lot of surplus to run other clubs."
The thinking is that with Lampard owned by a different club, City would be able to potentially write off his wages and count Lampard as a homegrown player. But this might not be the case. As Sports Illustrated's Grant Wahl reported, City apparently owns Lampard's contract.
This, in turn, raises the question of why the deal is being called a loan at all. But from a PR perspective, that's a footnote—for now, anyway. One thing Man City could do to smooth this all over would be to loan a bit player to NYCFC in Lampard's stead, as Ives Galarcep suggested. But that seems unlikely. The club and league are left with a disaster. NYCFC might as well stand for New York City Farm Club. MLS is officially triple-A ball, in the eyes of some—which might suit an aging Steven Gerrard just fine.
I wrote back in November that "You could build a compelling history of MLS around a narrative of the league battling to be taken seriously both domestically and internationally. It's a battle that MLS has, for the most part, won." I stand by the first sentence. I'm no longer so sure about the second.