Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard are both legends of English soccer. They were enormously successful playing for their respective clubs. They both won the Champions League. They both spent many years at a single club, with Gerrard earning 504 caps at Liverpool and Lampard playing 429 games for Chelsea. They both play similar positions in the midfield. They both were part of England’s “Golden Generation.” While they both undoubtedly find the media’s frequent comparisons of their careers frustratingly inescapable, by now they must see such juxtapositions coming. Further, it’s generally accepted that although the English press often played up the rivalry between them, the two players share a mutual respect for one another.
Now that they’ve joined MLS and are on the verge of making their respective debuts, it is an opportune time for MLS fans to play the English media’s favorite parlor game and hazard a guess at which of these two Lions will prove more successful in MLS. To aid curious soccer wonks like myself, I took the liberty of comparing some of the factors instructive to any such analysis:
Team – LA Galaxy v. NYCFC
The LA Galaxy is the most successful club in MLS history. It is true that MLS enjoys more parity than other leagues: during the first twenty years of its existence, half its clubs won the championship, which is unheard of in other leagues. Yet the LA Galaxy have won MLS Cup five times whereas DC United has four titles, Houston Dynamo has two, San Jose Earthquakes has two, Kansas City has two, with one apiece for the Chicago Fire, Columbus Crew, Real Salt Lake, and Colorado Rapids. Gerrard will benefit from the fact that the club he’s going to is accustomed to big name players and will also benefit from the fact that he’ll be suiting up next to Robbie Keane, who not only played with Gerrard at Liverpool but also transitioned from Europe to America far more seamlessly than his European DP cohorts. The LA Galaxy is also a well-balanced squad with the right combination of old-school MLS veterans (Gordo, Dunivant, Gargan), players in the prime of their careers (Gonzalez, DeLaGarza, Rogers, Juninho) and promising youngsters (Zardes, Lletget, Jamieson, Maganto).
Gerrard will benefit from the fact that the club he’s going to is accustomed to big name players…
NYCFC, on the other hand, is still in a nascent stage of development. MLS is littered with teams that exemplify just how hard it is for an expansion franchise to find early success. The Sounders did it best and even they ran into some bumps along the way. Kreis has done a great job of finding players whom he trusts can play role positions on an MLS team (Saunders, Wingert, Grabavoy, Velasquez, Ballouchy) and combining them with some popular prospects (Mix, Poku) and big stars to satisfy the boys at City Football Group (Villa, Pirlo, Lampard) but one can only imagine how difficult it has been for Kreis to build a team from scratch.
So Gerrard wins this one, right? Well, yes, but signing up for the LA Galaxy is something of a double-edged sword for Gerrard. One cannot use the same yardstick to measure success at these clubs. No one expects an expansion franchise to win the league in its first few seasons. MLS fans (even notoriously demanding New York fans) appreciate that it takes time to build a successful team. Lamps could probably trot around the field and wave to the fans for the next eighteen months, and so long as his presence sells t-shirts, even if NYCFC tanks it in the standings he’ll have a built-in excuse for failings on the pitch of which Gerrard cannot take advantage. In other words, Gerrard needs to achieve more in order to be considered a “success” than Lamps does. If NYCFC makes the playoffs this year, then NYCFC’s year will be deemed a huge success. If the Galaxy onlymake the playoffs this year, the season is a failure.
However, it’s still a tougher road to hoe for Frank than Steve on this one, so ….
This one is easy. The one thing that foreign imports always comment on is the difficulty of adjusting to the travel in MLS and the fact that intra-league travel requires adjustment to multiple time zones. Other than the Russia Premier League, there is no major league in the world that can compare to MLS in terms of the land mass that it spans. I assume that both StevieG and Lamps knew they would be racking up frequent flyer miles when they signed up for MLS, but neither probably bothered to calculate the number of miles involved. It turns out that the mileage racked up by an MLS player varies widely by conference. Every MLS team plays 34 league games, 17 at home and 17 away. Teams play each team in the opposing conference once (5 at home and 5 away games). However, teams play each of their nine conference opponents at least twice (one home, one away) and an additional six intra-conference games on top of that. So since 70% of the games a team plays are within its conference, most of the traveling a team does is also within its own conference. As it turns out, players in the West travel much more on average than their Eastern counterparts.
Vancouver – 1,278 miles
DC United – 238 miles
Seattle – 1,137 miles
NE Revs – 195 miles
Portland – 965 miles
Toronto FC – 475 miles
Sporting KC – 1,618 miles
NYRB – 20 miles
Dallas – 1,436 miles
Orlando City – 1,088 miles
San Jose – 341 miles
Columbus – 547 miles
RSL – 688 miles
Philadelphia – 105 miles
Houston – 1,546 miles
Montreal – 367 miles
Colorado – 1,023 miles
Chicago – 795 miles
AVERAGE: 1,115 per trip
AVERAGE: 426 miles per trip
That’s right – Gerrard will be travelling at least twice as many miles as Lampard. Therefore…
When Kreis assumed the reins of Real Salt Lake in 2007, he had never coached at any level and was the youngest coach in MLS at the time. However, City Football Group (CFG) must have done its homework when it went looking for a coach since, under Kreis, RSL played some of the prettiest soccer MLS has ever seen and Kreis managed to win the MLS Championship in 2009 with far fewer resources than LA or NY. The Duke graduate is known for his preparedness, work ethic, and total devotion to the beautiful game. NYCFC is luckier than it knows to have him (more on that later), and against almost any other coach in MLS, Lamps would have the edge in this category.
Almost any other coach. Bruce Arena is the most successful coach in U.S. history. He established one of the best soccer programs in the country at the University of Virginia. He took a United States national team that crashed out of the 1998 World Cup dead last and coached it to the World Cup quarterfinals in 2002. He brought a continental trophy to MLS for the first time in MLS history when he coached DC United to the CONCACAF Champions Cup in 1998. He has won five MLS Cups, three Supporters Shields, the US Open Cup, and more. Is Bruce arrogant? Maybe. Does he always play well with league officials? Maybe not. Does he get results? Indisputably. Bruce is the non-pareil of soccer coaching in this country and if you still don’t believe me, check out my multi-part series on Bruce Arena which can be found HERE, HERE, and HERE. Therefore….
EDGE – GERRARD (GERRARD – 2: LAMPARD – 1)
Weather/Field Conditions – Western Conference v Eastern Conference
Well, this is a tough one. It’s fair to say that both Gerrard and Lampard are going to put up with some pretty miserable conditions playing in MLS. Fortunately for both of them, their home fields are on natural grass though Lampard may experience vertigo trying to accustom himself to the wonky angles of playing in a baseball stadium. However, all three Cascadia teams are in the Western Conference, and since BC Place, CenturyLink Field, and Providence Park play with either FieldTurf or Polytan, Gerrard will have to confront more turf than Lampard (unless he pulls an Henry and refuses to play on turf). After this season, Lampard only has to contend with the Fieldturf at Gillette Stadium, since Orlando will be playing on natural grass next year in its brand new soccer specific stadium.
Now, it is true that Frank has to go to Orlando, which is also as hot as Hades…
In addition to the turf issue, there is also the issue of heat. The average temperature in England is about fifty degrees Fahrenheit. Last season, Newcastle Manager John Carver attributed his team’s late-season loss at Queens Park Rangers to the scorching heat… of London, stating, “I can’t fault the lads for their effort again in a hot, warm climate.” The temperature for that game? 19 degrees Celsius, which is approximately 64 degrees Fahrenheit. So it is fair to say that both Lampard and Gerrard will suffer some shock adjusting to the weather. Lampard will have to confront more extreme temperatures since New York gets both very hot and very cold, whereas Los Angeles is hot year-round, though thankfully Los Angeles does not share New York City’s humidity. Yet Lampard will rarely have to face playing at altitude in Colorado, or the hell of playing soccer in Texas in the summertime, whereas Stevie will have to play both Dallas and Houston in the West. Remember Manaus, Steve? Houston and Manaus enjoy similar climates but Houston doesn’t have the beauty of the Amazon to recommend it. Now, it is true that Frank has to go to Orlando, which is also as hot as Hades, but two hellacious climates are worse than one. Therefore…
EDGE – LAMPARD (GERRARD –2: LAMPARD – 2)
Ownership – City Football Group (Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan) v AEG (Philip Anschutz)
The good news first, boys. In light of Philip Anschutz’s $12 billion net worth and Sheikh Mansour’s $6 billion net worth, neither of you need to worry that your paychecks will bounce. Both City Football Group and AEG are ambitious owners (or as ambitious as MLS will allow them to be) and both have the means to fund their respective ambitions. The two also share a connection to the oil industry. Sheikh Mansour is one of the ruling members of the royal family of the United Arab Emirates, a small country in the Arabian Peninsula with vast oil reservoirs. Anschutz grew up in central Kansas the son of a wildcatter (an oil prospector) and struck oil himself along the Utah-Wyoming border in the 1970’s. Both men also have diverse portfolios in the sporting world. CFG owns several soccer teams including Manchester City in the Premier League, Melbourne City FC in the Australian League and Yokohama F Marinos in the Japanese League. Anschutz also has interests in multiple sports teams, including the Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Kings, in addition to owning many of the finest sporting venues in the world, including the Staples Center.
…neither of you need to worry that your paychecks will bounce.
It is here that the similarities fade. City Football Group made headlines when it landed in MLS last year and has not been shy about splashing the cash on big name signings. However, the soccer-specific stadium which was ostensibly a requirement for obtaining an MLS franchise never came to pass – and who knows when it will? Further, though CFG hired the right coach in Jason Kreis, there are murmurings that Kreis’ decision-making is being undermined by CFG behind the scenes. When Lampard was signed to NYCFC, Kreis made it clear that he wanted Lampard to start the season with the team (given the long history of mid-season DP signings finding it difficult to acclimate) – instead Frank spent the year at Manchester City. When Kreis stated he’s prefer to find a younger third DP who could stand up to the physicality of the league, CFG instead signed the exquisite Andrea Pirlo: Maestro that he is, no doubt some MLS fans are absolutely terrified that the elegant Italian will be brutalized by the rough and tumble play in MLS.
Indeed, it is deeply ironic that Jason Kreis, a modest, earnest and serious man who embodies Mid-Western values and whose RSL team became synonymous with the motto, “The Team Is the Star,” now coaches a team epitomized by individual star power. CFG is clearly trying to create brand consistency amongst its teams in order to present a cohesive global brand, but certain things have been lost in translation between the parent company and the supporters it’s theoretically pursuing, e.g., when NYCFC adopted a kit virtually identical to Manchester City. Labeling NYCFC as Manchester City lite may be unfair, but some NYCFC fans must surely wonder why NYCFC has lured Pirlo to MLS for a reported $8 million per year, but has not bothered to establish an academy or USL affiliate for young players. And it certainly does not bode well for CFG’s American stepchild that the parent company is ignoring the input of Jason Kreis, who is after all the only person in the whole organization who’s ever actually, you know, won anything in MLS. One gets the suspicion that CFG simply does not prioritize its MLS franchise.
On the other hand, there is no one who prioritizes MLS more than Philip Anschutz. Along with Alan Rothenberg and Lamar Hunt, Anschutz founded MLS in 1996. In 2002, when the league was on the brink of bankruptcy and a number of owners pulled out of the league, Anschutz bought out their interests in MLS and assumed ownership of six MLS teams. For a time Anschutz absorbed huge financial losses to keep the league alive, leading Commissioner Don Garber to later comment that “without Phil Anschutz, there is no MLS today.” Anschutz is one of only four recipients of the National Soccer Hall of Fame’s Medal of Honor for his contributions to growing the sport of soccer in the United States.
On the other hand, there is no one who prioritizes MLS more than Philip Anschutz.
Anschutz has also been the impetus behind many of the developments that have driven MLS towards profitability and focused the league on developing homegrown talent. Anschutz pushed MLS to invest in soccer-specific stadiums in order to grow revenue and control costs, and committed his own money to construct the StubHub Center for the LA Galaxy in 2003. Anschutz aided in establishing Soccer United Marketing, the league’s (now enormously profitable) sales and marketing division. In 2007, Anschutz made David Beckham the highest paid player in MLS history by bringing him to the LA Galaxy from Real Madrid and thereby caused the league to establish the “Beckham Rule,” which allows every team to sign up to three highly compensated Designated Players. In 2014, Anschutz was the first owner to establish a USL affiliate, Los Dos, to serve as a platform for transitioning players from the LA Galaxy Academy (which now has teams all the way down to the U-13 level) to the LA Galaxy first team. The LA Galaxy has successfully transitioned more Homegrown Players from its Academy to its first team than any other MLS franchise (other than possibly FC Dallas), including Jose Villareal, Gyasi Zardes, Oscar Sorto, Raul Mendiola, and Bradford Jamieson IV. Earlier this year, the LA Galaxy announced a pilot scholarship program that would enable Los Dos players to pursue both a professional soccer career and continue their higher education at California State Dominguez Hills, where the StubHub Center is located. Indeed, only last week it was announced that the LA Galaxy is establishing a high school for its Academy players.
While both owners are willing to pay big money to achieve success, Anschutz is clearly doing more to create a self-sustaining and profitable league based on homegrown talent.
EDGE – GERRARD (GERRARD –3: LAMPARD – 2)
Competition – Western Conference v Eastern Conference
The above table demonstrates that while seven of the top ten teams in the table are in the Western Conference, an Eastern Conference club, DC United, leads the league in the race for the Supporters Shield. Further, the results from this year’s games confirms a suspicion held by a number of MLS fans, namely that the competition is tougher in the Western Conference than in the Eastern Conference, as is demonstrated by the fact that Western Conference teams more regularly beat Eastern Conference teams in inter-conference games, but bleed points when playing against one another. DC United is well-situated to pick up points against its Eastern Conference rivals. Therefore, Gerrard will have to beat better teams on a more consistent basis in order to push the LA Galaxy up the standings. Though I think this disparity will decrease over time, for the time being Lampard will benefit from facing slightly weaker competition. So…
EDGE – LAMPARD (GERRARD –3: LAMPARD – 3)
Hmm, it’s a tie.
Of course, one could play this game out endlessly. Lampard is a London-boy: one could easily conclude that the cultural transition from London to New York City will be a smoother one for Lampard than Gerrard since Liverpool and Los Angeles are so radically different. Further, Gerrard, a born and bred Liverpudlian, has never lived anywhere but Liverpool, which suggests he is more likely to suffer from the homesickness which has befallen other DPs (ahem, Defoe).
Further, Gerrard, a born and bred Liverpudlian, has never lived anywhere but Liverpool…
On the other hand, one could also conclude that Gerrard has made a much more favorable impression on the LA Galaxy faithful than Lampard in light of the circus that surrounded Lampard’s decision to stay at Manchester City until the end of the EPL season. Gerrard not only came across as heartfelt and gracious during his brief introduction on the Fourth of July but he also endeared himself to LA Galaxy supporters’ groups by springing for some free suds (my nose tells me the LA Galaxy front office had something to do with that but hey, it worked, so Gerrard benefits from a savvy front office as well). Further, during his first press conference on July 7, 2015, Gerrard certainly created the impression of a sincere professional prepared to work hard for the LA Galaxy. It certainly doesn’t hurt to start things off on the right foot with your new club.
Et cetera, ad infinitum.
For what it’s worth, my own two cents on this subject is that the player who cares the most and works the hardest will prove to be the bigger success in MLS. I do not subscribe to the narrative that Lampard and Gerrard are too old for MLS – since both plied their trade in the Premier League, neither will be put off by the physicality and pace of the league (I mean, Lampard played on a team with John Terry for ten years – he’s no stranger to rough play). Further, both Lampard and Gerrard have avoided serious injury during their careers which suggests they are committed to maintaining their fitness. So whether it’s Lampard on the receiving end of a crunching Perry Kitchen slide tackle or Gerrard facing Obafemi Martins looking to steamroll him at full velocity, they’re better equipped than many of their DP counterparts to deal with the physical demands of MLS.
Instead, I think that their mental and emotional commitment to MLS will be the biggest predictor of how they’ll fare. Every DP who signs a contract with MLS parrots the same tropes: they want to “face new challenges” and “grow the league,” etc. Even the most ardent MLS fan appreciates that DPs are more likely to be motivated by the allure of a final big payday than anything else. But the reason that certain DPs flourish when others flop is attributable to the player’s drive to succeed, regardless of the fact that he’s playing in an unfamiliar city, in a foreign country, with new teammates, in unforgiving conditions, on strange pitches, before fans with whom he shares no emotional connection, in a league he knows almost nothing about. Professionalism, some might call it.
…the player who cares the most and works the hardest will prove to be the bigger success in MLS.
Between Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, I don’t know enough about either of them to draw conclusions about who is coming to MLS with the right intentions. We may find out soon enough.
The LA Galaxy and NYCFC will face off against one another on August 23, 2015, at the StubHub Center. I know I’ll be in the front row.