For every famous success of Major League Soccer’s Designated Player rule, for every Thierry Henry or Landon Donovan, there seems to be another utter disaster–the history of the DP era of Major League Soccer (2007 onward) has been littered with big-money players who have simply failed to live up to their billing: Kris Boyd, who lasted a solitary season with the Portland Timbers, scoring seven goals while making a cool $1.5 million (or $214,285.72 per goal); Denilson, the winger who had been capped 61 times for Brazil but managed only eight appearances and one goal for FC Dallas in his solitary MLS season in 2007; Mista, the Spanish forward who failed to score in a single season with Toronto FC, and Nery Castillo, a Mexican forward who had cost Ukrainian club Shakhtar Donetsk a then-club record 20 million euro transfer fee and promptly wore out his welcome and spent almost his entire time there away on loan to various clubs, including the Chicago Fire, where he contributed little in his lone season in America.
And don’t even ask a New York Red Bulls fan about Rafa Marquez.
But a new name has to top all of those as the worst Designated Player signing in the league’s history: Frank Lampard, who has yet to play a single minute in NYCFC’s two month-old 2016 campaign, but will be taking some time come summertime to commentate on the 2016 European Championships.
On the one hand, good for Lampard for laying the foundation for a career once he has hung up his boots: professional athletics, regardless of the sport, is full of athletes who went bankrupt after retiring, even athletes making seven-figure incomes like Lampard.
On the other hand, this is another in a line of tone-deaf actions by one of the most expensive players ever to suit up for any Major League Soccer outfit, and it serves to highlight just how little return the league and NYCFC have gotten on Lampard’s services (or lack thereof).
When considering the case for Lampard as the worst-ever DP signing in MLS history, one has to start, just like when singing Do-Re-Mi, at the very beginning. NYCFC and MLS fans alike were told by club and league suits that Lampard would be loaned out to Manchester City for the first six months of the 2014-2015 Premier League season, only when 2015 rolled around, it emerged that no such deal had ever actually been made: Lampard’s contract was owned by City, not NYCFC, meaning his stay in Manchester wasn’t a loan at all, and that he was free to extend his stay, which he promptly did, delaying his debut for NYCFC until August 2015.
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The contract chicanery, in addition to injuries, limited Lampard to just 10 appearances in 2015, totaling 733 minutes, with three goals and one assist. Per MLS Player Union figures, Lampard grossed $6 million in salary in 2015, which works out to $8,185.54 per minute he spent on the pitch. At that per-minute rate, in order to make the MLS on-budget minimum salary of $60,000, Lampard would have needed to play only seven minutes and twenty seconds.
That’s some nice work if you can get it.
Of course, in 2016, Lampard hasn’t played a single minute, with the season already 30% over. NYCFC is improved over their 2015 debut season at fourth in the Eastern Conference, but once you dig a little deeper, they’re still not doing great: the teams on either side of them in the standings–Philadelphia and Orlando, respectively–both have games in hand on New York as well as an advantage in goal differential.
At present, NYCFC looks like a potential bubble team to make the Eastern Conference playoffs (in the more competitive Western Conference, they’d be well below the red line, tied with the Seattle Sounders in eighth place), but this is MLS, where parity reigns supreme and only a single game’s worth allotment of points can separate a playoff-bound team from a side watching the festivities from the couch. You have to think that a healthy, contributing Lampard–or a healthy, contributing central midfielder with Lampard’s skillset and talent level–would, over the course of a full season, be worth the few points that will likely separate first from third or fourth place come October.
In many ways, Lampard’s time in MLS mirrors his English compatriot’s for whom the Designated Player rule was created in the first place: David Beckham spent most of his 2007 season with the LA Galaxy either injured or trying to play through injury, and after going out on loan to AC Milan, he decided he liked Serie A much more than MLS and extended his loan (AC Milan actually tried to make the transfer permanent), much to the consternation of MLS, the Galaxy, and Beckham’s American fans. Then, during a second loan to Milan, Beckham tore his Achilles’ tendon, causing him to miss most of yet another season with the Galaxy.
The difference, though, is that Beckham eventually redeemed himself: in retrospect, the Achilles’ tendon injury was a turning point, because going forward, Beckham focused entirely on his success with the Galaxy rather than with England or Milan. He recovered from injury in time to lead the Galaxy down the stretch to a Supporter’s Shield in 2010, and then won back-to-back MLS Cups in 2011 and 2012 before signing a six-month contract with Paris Saint-Germain and riding off into the sunset. Lampard, in contrast, stands poised to achieve no such heights with NYCFC.
And while–assuming his club gave him permission to do so–Lampard has every right to spend time commentating soccer matches (heck, Tim Howard has been doing it while at Everton), it is particularly bad optics for a player who, almost from the outset, has done nothing but antagonize his fan base to do so. Howard at least was–until his form started dropping after the 2014 World Cup–a beloved figure at Goodison Park and demonstrated at every turn immense respect for the club and its fans.
Lampard, on the other hand, began his tenure in America by, well, avoiding America to stay at Manchester City–and in so doing, demonstrating real contempt rather than respect for NYCFC–and his commentating side gig, while utterly innocuous coming from a player who has treated their employer professionally, comes across as another instance of him choosing not to prioritize NYCFC or MLS.
Lampard should look to take a page out of Beckham’s book and focus more–if not entirely–on his work with NYCFC, if he wants any chance of avoiding the title that is fast–and deservedly–being bestowed upon him of the worst-ever Designated Player signing in the history of Major League Soccer.
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