MLS careers of Lampard, Gerrard lackluster investments for NYCFC, LA
The careers of Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard have been nearly in lockstep with one another for almost two decades now. They both made their senior debuts in the 1990s and emerged as the leaders of their respective clubs -- Liverpool and Chelsea -- in the 2000s. The debate over their place in the England national team raged well into the 2010s.
Then, in 2015, both left the bright lights of the Premier League and joined MLS teams, with Gerrard heading to the LA Galaxy and Lampard to New York City FC. And now it looks like they'll leave MLS at exactly the same time. Gerrard penned what looked to be a farewell on Instagram (Editor's note: The news was confirmed on Tuesday). Lampard took the more traditional -- and official -- route, announcing through NYCFC that he wouldn't be returning.
What they'll do at this point is unclear. Gerrard has hinted that he wants to keep on playing, and there has been talk of him moving to Scottish side Celtic or Newcastle United in the English Championship. There has been more retirement conversation surrounding Lampard.
Regardless, their days in North America are done -- certainly in Lampard's case, and looking likely in Gerrard's -- and the overriding question to both departures is: Was it worth having them in MLS? That is a query that is oftentimes divided into two parts, the commercial side and the playing side. Without question, the two brought attention to the league. Plenty of Gerrard and Lampard replica jerseys were sold as well, with the former ranking fifth in the league this season while the latter ranked ninth.
In terms of attendance, a case can be made that Gerrard had at least some positive impact at the gate. To be clear, there are a lot of factors that affect attendance, but the Galaxy averaged 21,258 in 2014. That number increased to 23,392 in 2015, when Gerrard played half the season, and went up to 25,147 this season. But it's worth noting that Giovani Dos Santos -- the kind of Latino star the Galaxy have long craved -- arrived at almost exactly the same time as Gerrard. Given L.A.'s demographics, a strong argument can be made that Dos Santos' impact was greater.
Lampard's off-field impact is tougher to gauge. NYCFC was an expansion team in 2015, so there really is no "before" to compare it to. And the fact that the team's attendance decreased this season from 29,016 to 27,196 is down to any number of factors, not the least of which was the degree the team struggled in its inaugural season.
But inevitably, a player's perceived worth always comes back to on-field performance. It's true whether you're NYCFC's David Villa or the San Jose Earthquakes' Innocent Emeghara. If a player performs, just about any salary can be justified. In the case of both Gerrard and Lampard, the answer to the question of whether they were worth it has to be "no."
In Gerrard's case, his lack of mobility meant he didn't remotely resemble the box-to-box force he was at his peak. Once that was realized, the Galaxy went about trying to find a position that would cover his deficiencies. First Nigel de Jong was brought in to be the midfield enforcer, with the idea being that Gerrard would be free to go forward more with sufficient cover behind him. When that didn't work, Gerrard was played in a more advanced role. That worked out a bit better, as illustrated by his 11 assists, but it was all about square pegs and round holes.
Most critically of all, a string of minor injuries meant that Gerrard was never on the field for a long-enough spell to have a consistent impact. In 2016, he was limited to slightly less than half of the available minutes. By the end of the campaign, he couldn't really be counted on to be a major contributor, a point rendered moot by yet another nagging injury.
As for Lampard, he went from dumpster fire in 2015 -- when he stayed with Manchester City for the first half of the MLS season -- to key contributor in 2016. But in both seasons, he was hampered by injuries. Yes, Lampard scored 12 goals in 2016 but played even fewer minutes than Gerrard and was on the field for only 41 percent of the available regular season minutes this year.
That inability to get on the field -- and stay there -- would erode the value of any player, but it's especially true for performers like Gerrard and Lampard who were making $6 million or more per year. Given the economic realities of MLS, the investment made in a designated player demands that they be a team's best players, not part-time contributors. No amount of jersey sales or mentoring of younger players can change that.
That's why players like Dos Santos and Seattle Sounders midfielder Nicolas Lodeiro have become the prototypical DPs. They're young, skillful, charismatic and so far have proved to be durable. It also explains why MLS teams ought to be increasingly wary when it comes to aging box-to-box midfielders -- Chicago and Bastian Schweinsteiger take note -- who may not have the engines and health that they once did.
Were Gerrard and Lampard massive busts? That is going too far, especially when one thinks back to players like ex-FC Dallas midfielder Denilson and former New York Red Bulls defender Rafa Marquez, who were horrific on the field. But the experience with the two Englishman does provide a data point that their profile is one MLS clubs should avoid in the future.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.