By Ridge Mahoney
When he decided to leave the English Premier League for MLS, veteran midfielder Frank Lampard knew things would be different.
He’d be playing for a new franchise, New York City FC, with a new head coach and new teammates, encountering -- for him -- a new league, new cities, new opponents, new stadiums.
So he was expecting a much different life than what he lived during nearly two decades of play for West Ham United, Chelsea, and Manchester City. What he didn’t anticipate was, in effect, being accused of hiding behind an injury.
“I was frustrated being injured,” he says of a long layoff to recover from a calf problem that hobbled him in preseason. “I’ve worked day and night to try and get back fit. I knew when I did get fit, I could prove people wrong and I’ve done my best to do that in the last six weeks.”
In those six weeks, heading into a game last Friday at San Jose, he’d scored eight goals, including a hat trick in a 5-1 pummeling of Colorado that ended a 15-game unbeaten streak. That match earned him Player of the Week honors, and his exploits in July (six goals, one assist) netted him the Player of the Month award. He’s one of the major differences between the 2015 expansion team that fell short of the playoffs and the 2016 Eastern Conference leader. How sharply the fortunes for him and his team have changed.
“There’s a lot of things we experienced last year that were difficult for obvious reasons with a new franchise,” he said Friday after the Quakes had slowed down the potent NYCFC attack sufficiently to earn a 0-0 tie. “The new coach [Patrick Vieira] and coaching staff have been great. They’ve brought in some new players and we’ve all learned from last year. You’ve seen a change in the style of our play and a change in results.”
Three months ago, he’d been labeled “the worst signing in MLS history,” both for his absences from the field and the loan-that-wasn’t-a-loan that kept him at Manchester City until midway through the 2015 season. Those heaping abuse upon Frank Lampard just didn’t do their homework on a stalwart player who scored 177 goals in 609 Premier League appearances, and played 106 times (and scored 29 goals) for his country. Never before in his career had he shirked his responsibility to play if at all possible.
“He’s healthy now,” said Quakes captain Chris Wondolowski, who knows something about players renowned for scoring goals. “It really is that simple. He’s obviously a world-class player. It’s not like he just lost it when he comes to the United States and can’t find it. When he’s healthy, he’s going to show it.”
He’s shown this great run of form shortly after turning 38, which certainly lodges him in the older echelon of MLS and renders him more prone to injury. But those who claimed he’d lost his desire and was just going through the motions to collect a big paycheck ($6 million) assumed he’d undergone a radical personality shift from dedicated pro to money-grubbing malingerer.
“I just stayed cool in the moment,” he says. “People were criticizing me for being injured, which is something very new to me. If they were criticizing me, they don’t understand me.
“The league is great. The players are at a very high level and I’m very happy being here, to be honest. The European leagues have been established for many years and I don’t think that’s going to change. But you’re seeing quality players coming in and out here and American players improve. I’m sure the grassroots coaching system at the younger ages has to improve so more Americans can come through the league and onto the national team as well, but I’ve been impressed.”
Even before Lampard got back on the field, NYCFC had impressed. A few changes in personnel dovetailed with a different system instilled by Vieira that utilized the amazing talents of David Villa and Andrea Pirlo and melded them to the abilities of Tommy McNamara and rookie sensation Jack Harrison, whose season also started late because of injury. Defensive breakdowns are still a concern, though a solid game by centerback Maxime Chanot -- who made his first MLS start in San Jose -- and a few sharp saves by keeper Josh Saunders kept the Quakes off the board.
“When you go on the road you want to do two things,” said Lampard. “You want to keep a clean sheet, like we did today, and you want to score. We know we’ve got players of quality who can create goals and score goals even though we weren’t able to do that tonight.
“We’re trying to play football from the back. I think you can see that. We’re probably the team in the league that plays the most from back to front, from the goalkeeper trying to play through. It’s obvious what we’re trying to do and there’s a lot of work behind the scenes to do that, to change the style to that extent. We’ve worked on that from the first day of preseason until now and we’ll continue to do so.
“The hard bit is defending better, because at times we’ve been conceding too much both last year and this year.”
Vieira is still tinkering with a few pieces, searching for the right balance of bite and brilliance in midfield and forging a reliable back four. The advanced ages of Lampard and Pirlo complicate the task, though since establishing himself as a regular Lampard has sorted out the right times to get into the box, as he’s done since starting his first-team career with West Ham 20 years ago. The mind makes up for the legs.
“He understands the game quicker than anybody else,” Vieira said. “His brain helps him get to the position where other people don’t even think about it and this is why he’s scoring goals. He smells the goals. He’s really dangerous inside the box. His finishing is fantastic.”
One of Lampard's finishes, in a 2-0 defeat of Seattle, caused controversy when the ball appeared to come off his arm rather than this chest. He scored in his first 2016 start by latching onto a deflected McNamara shot and slotting it home with this left foot, the same foot he used in in another match to first-time a low ball from Roland Matarrita after he arrived in the penalty area unmarked. In yet another game he arrowed to the back post and slid to prod a bouncing ball into the net with his right foot.
“They break well, and their movement seems to be a step ahead,” said Quakes head coach Dominic Kinnear. “They find the pass before maybe some other guys do, and it gives them space on the field. And Frank Lampard is one of the best at coming late and being deadly in front of the goal.
“The one thing that anybody who’s ever been around him or followed his career knows, he’s a goalscorer from midfield. That’s why he’s had the career that he’s had.”
His career follows that of his father, Frank Lampard Sr., a diligent defender who played 18 seasons and 670 games -- second on the club's all-time list -- for West Ham before finishing his career with Southend in 1986, when Frank Jr. was 8.
“He gave me everything,” says the son of his father. “The ethics he gave me as a young boy, to work hard, to understand how difficult it is to make it in the professional game. Live right, train right, practice hard, all the right things he did in his career and he passed them down to me. Some of my friends from when I was a young boy fell by the wayside because they didn’t have the right attitude, maybe. I had the right attitude from my dad.”
Only for the past year or so has Lampard’s attitude been questioned and those criticisms have dissipated in the wake of his recent performances. There are still several months of the regular season to play, and then most probably the playoffs, but if there’s a dip in form it won’t be attributable to mindset. In poker terms, Lampard has been all-in since he arrived a year ago.
“I had high expectations and I haven’t been let down,” he says. “The quality, the passion, the fans -- every stadium we travel to is pretty packed with a great atmosphere and a lot of respect between fans towards players -- and I’ve enjoyed that.”
His dedication extends beyond that of a few other foreign players in that he willingly plays on artificial turf and even embraces it, to an extent. That is not the persona of a goldbrick.
“I’ve played a few games already on turf and I’ve enjoyed the challenge of it,” says Lampard, who has scored two of his goals at New England and Seattle. “The last thing I want to do as a player is come over here and exclude myself from games because it’s on turf.
“Look, if some players have got proper physical problems of playing turf because of joints, knees, whatever, than I understand. It’s not me. I’ve played already on turf and I will continue to do so.”