MLS Countdown: English stars ready for first MLS clash

Described as “imcompatible” and “ideal partners” and every shade of middle ground during their stints as England internationals, Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard get their first MLS opportunity to renew club rivalries when New York City FC and the Galaxy battle Saturday at Yankee Stadium (3:30 pm. ET, ESPN).

Longtime rivals as stalwarts for Chelsea and Liverpool, respectively, the duo did not tangle in the first-ever meeting last year of new team and five-time champion. Lampard, hobbled by a quad injury, sat out a 5-1 thrashing inflicted by the Galaxy at StubHub Center. He played the next nine games to finish the season -- and score three goals -- without shaking the stigma of a disastrous signing.

Ditto for Gerrard. Though his arrival last summer wasn’t delayed by a bogus loan fiasco as was Lampard’s, he didn’t produce much on the field, either. In 13 games, all starts, he scored two goals and assisted on three others. What had once been regarded as among the league’s best midfields deteriorated into just another competent group, and the two-time defending champion fell to Seattle in the playoffs for the first time.

Yet another injury sidelined Lampard in the 2016 preseason, and as he labored to rehab a troublesome calf, Gerrard and a bunch of Galaxy newcomers -- Nigel de Jong, Emmanuel Boateng, Jelle Van Damme, and Lampard’s former Chelsea teammate Ashley Cole -- tried to jell as injuries and international callups constantly disrupted player selection and form.

Yet both teams have proven to be tough outs. Of a combined 48 games, they have lost only 10. They have the same number of points, 38, though NYCFC (10-7-8) leads the Eastern Conference and L.A. (9-3-11) is third in the West and four points out of a first-round bye. And both teams, like their English stars, appear to be gathering momentum for a strong finish to the regular 

Lampard has scored nine goals in the last 10 games. Gerrard leads the Galaxy with 11 assists and also has three goals. Not surprisingly, better play from the men around them and tweaking of their roles has enabled them to increase their influence. They’ve also smoothed out their set-play responsibilities.

With a few exceptions, such as a 0-0 tie in San Jose two weeks ago, Lampard has hit the right times and methods to support playmaker Andrea Pirlo while also sliding forward to back up striker David Villa. Gerrard, too, has found the ideal starting point – a slot deeper in midfield – to spray balls into the paths of Robbie Keane, Gyasi Zardes, Boateng, et al.

Lampard said this week he’s been looking forward to hosting the Galaxy for quite a while.

“I’m going to try and see Ash and Stevie at the hotel. I’ve got a couple of Chelsea friends over from London as well for the game,” Lampard told “We might go and see them if I have the chance. But we’re focused. We’re friends, but in the build-up to games I like to keep my head down and Ashley is the same. If they stay over after the game then maybe we’ll share a dinner or a beer afterwards.”

There’s much more in play for this game besides a matchup of two men renowned for their amazing exploits and bizarre inability to mesh cohesively for England yet the sight of them vying for a 50-50 ball or lining up to launch a set play into the other’s zone of responsibility will conjure memories of majestic Chelsea-Liverpool confrontations. Both men have won a Champions' League crown, multiple FA Cups, and played for England more than 100 times.

This being MLS, they will play on a baseball field. Only in America.

"Obviously the Yankees stadium is not the ideal stadium for soccer," says Lampard. "It’s not built for that, but it’s a hugely historical stadium with a real magic about it. I’ve certainly enjoyed playing there."

Puzzled by the how the narrow playing field is squeezed into a baseball configuration, many teams need time to get oriented and settle in defensively

“When you’re in the stadium, especially as a defender, you’re looking for right angles,”  Galaxy defender Jeff Larentowicz, who played in Yankee Stadium last year with the Fire, told “You’re looking for where the line is so you can defend properly. If you watch games there it’s difficult for the back four to get into position, and that’s because one sideline is completely open. And it goes for however many yards toward home plate where you don’t really know where everything is.

“It’s bizarre.”

Officially, the field is 110 yards long and 70 yards wide, the minimum dimensions mandated by FIFA and the smallest surface in MLS. NYCFC hasn’t been able to exploit the quirky conditions and passionate fan support (average crowds of 26.873) into homefield dominance. Its home record of 4-3-5 is 18th amongst the 20 teams. The Galaxy has the league’s second-best road record at 3-3-5.

An orbital fracture has sidelined Robbie Keane for the last two games (including a 2-1 Open Cup loss to FC Dallas) but he’s been wearing a protective mask in training and is expected to play. The league’s concussion protocol prevented him from playing in a 1-1 tie with Colorado last weekend. Galaxy keeper Brian Rowe sustained a head injury against the Rapids and will not play. Dan Kennedy replaced him last week but head coach Bruce Arena has not divulged if Kennedy will get the start at Yankee Stadium.

It’s not a crucial game in some aspects, but in regards to markets, prestige, audiences, ambitions, and stars, it’s big. 


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