The perception of MLS as a retirement league is apparently alive and well in England, and during a conference call with reporters Thursday Frank Lampard addressed disparaging comments made by former England and Chelsea teammate Ashley Cole.
“It’s a statement from Ashley, I don’t know, just his opinion maybe,” said Lampard, who comes to MLS and New York City FC at age 36. “I’m certainly not ready to relax on a beach.”
Cole took the trouble to specifically single out MLS in comments made after signing with Roma. Both he and Lampard were released by Chelsea in May after the club finished third in the Premier League and reached the Champions League semifinal with both of them playing diminished roles. Cole wasn’t picked for England’s World Cup team; Lampard went to Brazil and played only the group finale, a 0-0 tie with Costa Rica in which he captained the team and earned his 106th cap.
“I had offers from the USA, but I'm not ready to relax on a beach yet,” Cole, 33, said upon arriving in Rome earlier this week. “I've won a lot in my career already, but I don't want to stop.”
Tweeted comments included, “I choose to play in a more demanding place and team and people still feel the need to moan, how about you just worry about ur team and I'll worry about mine, I'm talking about the MLS by the way.”
During the conference call Lampard praised the league and also the challenge on which New York City FC and head coach Jason Kreis are embarking. After starting his professional career with West Ham, for which his father, Frank Sr., also played, Lampard played 13 seasons for Chelsea and scored a team-record 211 goals before being released.
“I’d been at Chelsea a long time and my career there was coming to an end,” said Lampard, who during his tenure won a Champions League crown, three Premier League titles, four FA Cups, and the Europa League. “I wanted to take on a great challenge and for me, a great challenge is more my personal cup of tea.”
The Galaxy made a bid for him last year, when his Chelsea future came into question, but the club offered him a one-year deal that he accepted. He didn’t start regularly for manager Jose Mourinho, who was starting his second stint in charge, yet he insists that was the right move at the time.
“To be honest, Chelsea was the best option for me at that time, to prolong my career at Chelsea,” he said. “There was always an interest and option [from MLS] but one that I never took up.”
He admits he doesn’t have an intimate knowledge of the league but cited a bit of experience he gleaned from playing for Chelsea against the MLS All-Star team in 2006 and 2012, and his observations of those MLS players who have represented their countries in the World Cup. He invoked the name of David Beckham, inevitably, and gave the USA performance in Brazil some props to counter indirectly the proclamations of Cole.
“I can only say that the progress I’ve seen the league take from a distance has been a great one,” he said. “From the early days of David Beckham, the league as a whole has grown and players are interested in coming over. The quality of the American team, the USA team, we saw at the World Cup shows you the level individually the players have been raised to. I think it’s come on a decent amount in quality. That’s why I’m so interested to come out here and play and that helped my decision.
“The league’s growing, more players are coming out here, and the competition will be great. You already have a lot of respect around the world for the MLS and I think it’s going to be even more so in 2016. I hope so.”
New York City FC has signed him to a two-year contract and though his precise role is yet to be determined, since he is just the fourth player to be signed by the expansion team, Kreis is convinced Lampard is tailor-made for the task at hand.
“For me, the decision is again, two-fold,” said Kreis. “No. 1 is the soccer issue. That one’s easy: a name like Frank Lampard comes up on your desk and you say, ‘Absolutely, 100 percent. Where do I sign up?’ “The other one is the character and the leadership issue. That involves a little more research, a little bit more communication. When that’s all done, we were extremely, extremely pleased that we got our man.”
During a press conference in Brooklyn Lampard refuted reports that he’d been one of several drunken English players who had taunted American fans at Heathrow Airport in 2001 a day after the 9-11 terrorist attacks. “What I did want to say is that I categorically did not insult anyone, set out to insult anyone, behave badly in front of Americans or, in fact, anyone,” Lampard said. “I was very sensitive to the issue and tragedy. . . . Unfortunately, it was very much misreported in England at the time and it’s finally a chance for me to say that.”
The energy and workrate he displayed as a box-to-box player will be arduous to replicate in MLS, given his age and the hot and humid conditions he’ll encounter in many cities. But Lampard is a veteran of nearly two decades in the Premier League, and the experience and guile he’s gained should help NYCFC not only win games but establish the same type of ambitious, successful tradition Kreis created at Real Salt Lake.
“This is a competitor, a world-class, elite-level competitor,” said Kreis, himself a fierce customer as a player. “That’s what we need and that’s certainly what we need our most important players to do, that’s certainly what we need our early signings to do, that’s certainly what we’re going to need our leaders to do. And I have no doubt that’s what we’ll get.”