Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard Underline That MLS Is No Retirement Home
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Thursday, 17 November 2016 07:19

There is a certain quirk in the universe’s space-time continuum, perhaps something cosmically charged, something written in the stars, that links Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard. For as long as the two have been professional footballers, their careers have intertwined in one way or another.

One cannot exist without the other. They are each other’s reference point.

So considering how Gerrard and Lampard were Premier League stars at the same time, played for England at the same and made the move to the United States at the same time, it was little surprise that they both announced their decision to leave Major League Soccer in the same week, within 24 hours of each other.

After 18 months Stateside, Gerrard is departing the L.A. Galaxy with Lampard similarly calling time on his stint at New York City FC. Neither player has divulged much beyond that, with both thought to be considering one last spell as a player somewhere in Europe. But to continue the theme, Gerrard and Lampard are leaving behind a similar legacy in MLS.

While most North American fans would admit there was a certain novelty to having two players of such repute playing in the league, neither Gerrard nor Lampard truly excelled Stateside. Gerrard’s spell was especially disappointing, with his time at the L.A. Galaxy becoming synonymous with a period of underachievement for MLS’s most illustrious club.

The Liverpool legend never really fitted in at StubHub Center. Manager Bruce Arena did his best to accommodate Gerrard in a team that didn’t have a natural role for him, but the former England captain was something of a misfit for the 18 months he was in California.

“When I left Liverpool, I came to Los Angeles with the goal of helping the Galaxy lift another MLS Cup,” Gerrard said via a statement published on the L.A. Galaxy’s website on Tuesday (h/t the Guardian). 

“I am of course disappointed to have not achieved that objective, but I can look back at my time at the club with pride at what we accomplished, including two straight playoff appearances and countless memorable moments on the pitch. I am now looking forward to spending time with my family as I consider the next stage of my career.”

Lampard fared a little better in New York, netting an impressive 15 goals in 29 appearances for NYCFC. But that’s just it—the former Chelsea midfielder struggled to make the field over the course of his time in MLS, whether that was down to injuries or his ill-advised loan spell with Manchester City when his new club needed him most.

It was during this time that Lampard became a figure of hate at a club he hadn’t even played a game for yet. His own supporters implored him to go home, making the point that if he didn’t want to be in New York for the first few months of the season, he shouldn’t be there at all. He eventually endeared himself to the sometimes volatile New York City FC support, but his MLS legacy had already been tainted by then.

But the duo did succeed in underlining an important point about MLS in their time Stateside. The American game has long struggled with its reputation as a retirement home for fading European stars.

It’s true that once the country’s top flight was the domain of those wishing to pick up one final paycheque before calling time on their careers. That is no longer the case, though, and Gerrard and Lampard’s time over there illustrates that.

Gerrard in particular never truly committed to the task at hand with the L.A. Galaxy. He moved to California for the lifestyle, admitting that much upon signing for the club. He highlighted upon signing for the Galaxy how Los Angeles as a city had been a draw for himself and his family, as per the L.A. Galaxy website. In truth, that’s what he moved to MLS for. That’s what he is leaving behind.

Questions were asked of Lampard’s commitment to the cause as well, with the midfielder seemingly more intent on initially using NYCFC as a way to prolong his Premier League career, joining sister club Manchester City on loan for a season and only making the switch to MLS midway through the 2015 campaign. It made the wrong statement about what the former England international wanted from his time in New York.

Even when both players were present and playing, things didn’t come easily to them. Lampard took until the summer of 2016 to find his place in Patrick Vieira’s team, enjoying a spurt of eight goals in eight games over June and July. Gerrard, on the other hand, never showed his true ability for the L.A. Galaxy.

The Carson club has seen some great Designated Players over the years—David Beckham and Landon Donovan to name just a couple—but Gerrard didn’t add his name to such a revered list.

So given the struggles of both Gerrard and Lampard, will MLS finally shed its image as a place footballers go to enjoy a comfortable close to their careers?

It’s a league that takes a lot to succeed in. The quality of play certainly isn’t as high as it is in the Premier League or elsewhere in Europe, but it mustn’t be understated just how taxing the travelling and conditions are on players, even the very best ones. That is what Gerrard and Lampard discovered for themselves.

Of course, MLS will continue to court big names as long as it wants to grow. Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Wayne Rooney have recently been linked with a move across the Atlantic, per John Cross and James Nursey of the Mirror, and as David Villa and Sebastian Giovinco have shown, big names can enjoy big success in MLS, but only if they grasp exactly what they are getting themselves into. 

MLS isn’t easy. Thierry Henry was considered a success for the New York Red Bulls, yet for all his efforts, he failed to win the MLS Cup he wanted to end his career with so badly. That almost says as much about the quality of the North American game as much as anything Beckham said or did during his time there.

Derision of MLS is still common in European footballing circles, but Gerrard and Lampard’s spells at the L.A. Galaxy and New York City FC respectively underline how there is no longer a basis for such an opinion. Given the parallels drawn between their two careers, it was fitting they discovered that at the same time.

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