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Jul 24, 2014

Lampard's MLS arrival is anticlimactic

New York City FC unveiled their newest signing in Frank Lampard, who will make his debut for the club in their Major League Soccer introduction in 2015.

He's finally here, then. After what feels like years of rumors at this point, Frank Lampard has finally rolled into New York, where he will play for New York City FC next year. For a period of time.

Lampard has been out of contract since the end of the Premier League season with Chelsea, and is now is earning a reported $150,000 per week, which if true will make him the highest-paid player in MLS. For now.

For all that Lampard is a feted member of England's so-called "golden generation," he's actually a curiously underrated midfielder. He scores a lot of goals for a player operating in his part of the field (admittedly a number swelled by penalties, but frankly, if a player wants to increase his goal-scoring tally by scoring penalties, he's coming to the right league in MLS right now). He's a smart player as well -- adaptable and dependable -- and exactly the kind of technical role model that will help Jason Kreis establish his blueprint for the expansion team. While he's here.

And that's the thing. Lampard is 36, and while nobody's doubting that he'll still be one of the best players in MLS when he starts playing in the league in 2015, there's something strangely deflating about seeing him show up now, for this project, at this stage of the league's development and this stage of his career.

It's not that the league, or any team within it, is beyond Lampard's likely contribution; it's that they aspire to be. And in the gradual change in ownership culture, with the emphasis on repatriating or retaining top U.S. talent, MLS executives can legitimately claim they've committed to a new and necessary phase in the league's development.

- SKC plans $75M training center
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- McIntyre: The case for summer friendlies

The MLS is becoming a more honestly integrated part of the global soccer economy -- long distant from the less-than-splendid isolation of the league's first 1990s incarnation, with its gimmicky formats and superannuated stars, but still a distance from genuinely competing with other leagues on a general technical level.

It's a potentially painful period of growth, since it might involve a more sustained weekly reminder that U.S. soccer is "not there yet" -- in the words of Jurgen Klinsmann -- than a one-off heartbreak against Belgium. Achieving a critical mass of top U.S. players back in MLS and possibly still falling short (in the immediate future at least) in regional CONCACAF Champions League competition against Mexican sides may be a rough reality check at times, but it arguably needs to happen if real and sustained development is going to come, and if we're going to get past the Brazilification of MLS teams in the Designated Player era.

And it's why, for all his qualities, and for all that he makes sense for NYCFC for all sorts of marketing and technical reasons right now, Lampard's signing feels, if not disappointing, at least anticlimactic. I'm not sure I buy the idea that it reinforces the perception of MLS as a retirement home (in my experience that's an idea that took root in the British press a few years into the league's existence, and it's an idea the same press corps have little vested interest in re-examining).

It's more that while Jermain Defoe signing for Toronto -- or, of course, David Villa signing for NYCFC -- demands a reaction, even if it's to dismiss their ambition or the standard of play at their new home, it's all too understandable why Lampard would take a big paycheck at this stage of his career when there's relatively little at stake for his reputation.

It's basically hard to imagine a scenario in which Lampard truly establishes any sense of history with NYCFC. He could conceivably be a part of an immediately successful side that sweeps all before them in their first season, but no amount of talk about "believing in the project" can hide the fact that his part in the project will likely end shortly after it begins.

In Frank Lampard, New York City is getting a midfielder who has won at the highest level, and wore the captain's armband while doing so.

And that's a shame, since the designated players who've come from England and made a mark have often arrived only after a journey that continued long after the news conference they held up a scarf at; David Beckham's two MLS Cups were more significant for the ones he didn't win beforehand, and for his having to win back a section of his own fans in the process.

Thierry Henry's frequent moodiness in the Red Bulls locker room is not just diva sulking, but also reflects his hard-earned experience of the first New York side's infinite capacity for underperforming at the crucial moment. Similarly, Henry's wearing of the old MetroStars colors on his captain's armband is more than affectation, but a nod to what's now part of his own history.

Robbie Keane hit the ground running and started scoring immediately in his side's 2011 championship run, then found himself helping dig the Galaxy out of a slump a year later, when he could have coasted on his own reputation. Another MLS Cup followed. He recently agreed a multi-year contract extension.

It's not that Lampard will arrive with any more or less expectation, or possible condescension about his new work environment -- hello, Ashley Cole ... -- than any of those other players. It's the fact that part of the fascination of watching even the most storied of players adjust to the league is watching their history with it accrue -- their multiple-time-zoned, jet-setted, variable-climated, artificial-turfed, journeyman-kicked history -- and with it, sometimes despite themselves, a sense of ownership.

I hope Lampard comes to feel some of that sense of having a meaningful stake in the growth of the league -- I just can't help feeling he should have got here sooner to do so.

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