Let’s see if this situation sounds familiar: Famous English footballer signs with Major League Soccer and is automatically seen as the greatest thing as sliced bread. English footballer player goes on loan to major European team and realizes “Oh Snap! I can actually still play. I want to stay here.” Chaos ensues as coach of European team subtly hints that he wants to keep English football player and MLS team has to fly to Europe to beg to get their player. English footballer’s wife’s celebrity career hangs in the balance.
Or how about this one: MLS awards franchise in major metropolitan city to global football powerhouse. While relationship seems great, owners of said team suddenly use MLS club as a farm club and way to skirt financial rules.
For as much as MLS likes to think of themselves as being this new league (is it 2.0, 3.0, or MLS C-3PO?) and a power in global football, the situation with Frank Lampard and NYCFC feel like MLS 2007. At least David Beckham actually came and played with the Los Angeles Galaxy and at least Chivas USA played a few matches before tanking.
It is hard to fault Frank Lampard, just as much as it was hard to fault Beckham when he wanted to play abroad. The 36-year old midfielder has had a very strong start to the season, scoring 6 goals in 14 appearances for City. It is clear that he still has plenty to give and who could blame him for wanting to play at one of the top clubs in world football.
One really should not even be mad at Manchester City, who are part owners of New York City FC. Ever since the announcement was made that City Football Group and the New York Yankees would team up to create NYCFC, it was apparent that this club was just part of the Manchester City brand. Much like with their team in the Australian A-League, Melbourne City, the point is to spread their brand and develop players for Manchester City. City Football Group are business-people and Frank Lampard is an asset.
The problem though lies with MLS and their inability to find good partners to go into business with. While it is certainly possible that City Football Group could turn this into a very fruitful relationship, the fact that their team in MLS will look exactly like papa Manchester, that they still have not procured a soccer-specific stadium and that they are already looking to keep one of their top players should be troubling.
Of course, none of this speaks of the quality of play on the field. Starting a team from scratch can be a very difficult process for teams in MLS. Only two teams that have entered the league as expansion squads had a winning record in their first season (Chicago Fire in 1997 and Seattle Sounders in 2009).
The reason why is simple: these are groups of players who are thrown together from different teams and leagues and essentially asked to put everything together in two months. Easier said than done, particularly when one of your two Designated Players is playing for Manchester City.
If City Football Group plan to use NYCFC as a farm club and a means of going around Financial Fair Play rules in Europe, then MLS will lose a tremendous amount of respect. As a league, it already has to fight a difficult battle winning football fans who love watching European and South American football, but find the MLS product to be lacking. Having one of your top players skirting one of your top markets during the season will cement the idea among many that this product is inferior and cannot improve.
MLS should also be concerned about the perception that this move will have on potential NYCFC supporters. New Yorkers are famous for their passion for sports and are some of the most brutally honest fans in the world. They do not consider themselves second to anyone and it will be interesting to see how they react to Lampard and NYCFC’s owners if they continue to be treated like the little brothers. City Football Group should ask their partners how New Yorkers react when the Yankees lose.
MLS made a very big gamble when they decided to choose the City Football Group/ New York Yankees bid in establishing NYCFC. Going against the popular New York Cosmos bid that many wanted and cutting into the New York Red Bulls market, the league gambled that NYCFC could bring in the best players and move this league forward. The league needs Frank Lampard to be in training camp in February, not playing in Europe.