-John Ciardi, “Why Nobody Pets the Lion in the Zoo”
When the Goose Island is gone and the voice is hoarse and the scent of suntan lotion has been replaced by skin flushed pink after soaking in hours of sunshine on the Golden coast, it’s time for LA Galaxy fans to contemplate lessons learned on a Sunday afternoon.
A Lion is Only As Dangerous as His Pride
The LA Galaxy’s game against NYCFC added a post-script to a debate that has circulated in England for decades, to wit, Lampard or Gerrard? Though it’s prudent not to rely on the opinions of Chelsea or Liverpool fans, even neutrals intelligently disagree. To briefly summate this debate, Lampard scored more goals than Gerrard and won the Premier League three times, a feat Gerrard never accomplished at Liverpool. However, Gerrard is the more complete midfielder, capable of dictating games, providing defensive cover and tackling, and those sumptuous free-kicks.
MLS has caused a peculiar reversal of fortune for Gerrard and Lampard. Though Lampard won far more trophies than Gerrard in England, Lampard took the field at Chelsea with Didier Drogba ahead of him, John Terry behind him, Petr Cech in goal and Ashley Cole on the left. But for a couple seasons when Gerrard played with Luis Suárez or Xabi Alonso, Gerrard never played with teammates of talent equivalent to that at Chelsea.
Oh, how the worm has turned. It is now Gerrard who plays for the most successful club in the league, and who counts Robbie Keane, Giovani dos Santos, Gyasi Zardes, Sebastian Lletget, Omar Gonzalez, Juninho and AJ DeLaGarza in his pride. NYCFC, meanwhile, in its inaugural season, has only shown flashes of the team it may become one day.
“I think we ran up against the best team in the league and they punished our mistakes pretty severely.” —Jason Kreis, Head Coach of NYCFC, on his team’s 5-1 loss to the LA Galaxy
That the newcomers also have David Villa, Pirlo, Mix and Poku (okay I secretly love Poku – how can you not?) in their ranks has not made it any less of an uphill battle. The divergent experiences of Lampard and Gerrard in MLS actually shed a fascinating light on the age old Lampard v. Gerrard debate by proving the extent to which the quality of one’s peers dictates individual success. Had Stevie been born in Walham Green and Lamps brought up a Scouser, it would have been Stevie winning three league titles and not Frank.
“We got outplayed by a better team. After the first 20 minutes they started to get into the game. They played better, they defended better and they attacked better and the score reflects that.” —David Villa, on NYCFC’s game against the LA Galaxy
Of course, fans who’ve never followed the Premier League might find it hard to believe that students of the game in Europe think Gerrard and Lampard are virtually interchangeable, but to many English fans both players are similar attack-minded midfielders who roam space behind strikers looking for opportunities to move forward, on or off the ball, and nab a goal. It proved an endless conundrum for the England national team, what with both players seeing the same opportunities in the same space, and usually led to Sven-Göran Eriksson or Fabio Capello pulling Gerrard out of position so they could play in games together.
Yet no one could draw this conclusion on Sunday. Gerrard stalked the pitch at the Stubby, unwilling to give NYCFC’s players an inch on home turf, and passed seamlessly with Juninho, allowing Keano’s endless opportunism and Gio’s fresh-faced creativity to reduce the visitors to a sweaty heap. Frank, in the meantime was… not on the pitch.
“I spoke to him before the game and was disappointed he wasn’t available to play the game today. It was a great match and occasion. The good thing is that he’s nearly fit and we all want to see Frank do well in the MLS. He was a good teammate of mine and we wish him the best of luck for the rest of the season.” —Steven Gerrard, on Frank Lampard
Lampard, having postponed his foray to the United States by six months, still cannot achieve the fitness necessary to aid NYCFC in its fledgling season. Though Lampard is ostensibly injured, his absenteeism has reached near farcical levels. Certain early transgressions in Lampard’s career combined with his sojourn to Manchester City and the constant issues of unfitness since he arrived in New York could cause MLS fans to reasonably wonder: does Lampard simply hate the United States? Is he using his time in MLS as an opportunity to seek revenge for some wrong perpetrated against his ancestors? Perhaps professional genealogists could do some quick research to determine whether Lampard’s great-great-great-great-great grandfather was a Redcoat under General John Burgoyne at Saratoga or perhaps a majority shareholder in the East India Company during the Boston Tea Party. Maybe we should just apologize for whatever our forefathers did to the Lampard clan so that he will stop punishing us.
Every Jungle Is Different
What does it say when two players who, for all intents and purposes, were viewed as mirror images of one another by fans who watched them play week in and week out for two decades, enjoy such different fates in MLS? Simply that there is no correlation between how a player fares in Europe and whether he succeeds in MLS. Legendary players can do okay or fail completely in MLS, journeyman players can excel, or a player who was hugely successful in Europe can prove hugely successful in MLS.
“I’m happy. I’ve settled in well and I feel in good form. I feel confident, but for me the special mention should go to Juninho. He’s a pleasure to play with and we are learning off each other very quickly. He’s a good guy and I’d like him to get all the attention. I thought he was superb today.” —Steven Gerrard, on his partnership with Juninho in midfield
Two time Champions League winner and four time La Liga winner Rafael Márquez was an ignominious failure in MLS. At the New York Red Bulls, frustration with his teammates boiled over into a radical indiscipline perhaps best exemplified by him breaking Shea Salinas’ clavicle or getting sent off after tacking Chris Pontius – indeed, Márquez accumulated sixty fouls during three seasons in MLS, an extraordinary figure when one considers he had one of the highest rates of absenteeism in the league, playing in only half the league games, despite being paid almost $5 million per year. Similarly, Jermain Defoe, who at one point was regarded as one of the best strikers in the Premier League, played well during a few games in Toronto but was derailed by the physical demands of the league, picked up injuries from which he never recovered, and returned to England the following year.
Thierry Henry, who was voted the second greatest Premier League player of all time (behind Cristiano Ronaldo), was very good in MLS but he never won a championship – the only silverware he landed during four years in MLS was the 2013 Supporter’s Shield. And like Marquez, Henry never fully acclimated to having teammates who lacked his field vision. David Villa, who won both the Champions League and the World Cup, has been simply lovely playing for NYCFC, but as pointed out by my colleague Andrew Schmidt, he has been unable to single-handedly lift NYCFC to playoff pole position.
On the other hand, Obafemi Martins, who had a perfectly fine, but not particularly memorable career in Europe, has been a revelation in Seattle. And Robbie Keane, who in England is rated as a very good but not legendary player, could very well be the best Designated Player in MLS history. During Keane’s first 100 league appearances for the LA Galaxy, Keano bagged 66 goals and 40 assists, won three MLS Cups, one Supporter’s Shield, and been named MLS MVP. And while no one in Italy would utter Sebastian Giovinco’s name in the same breath as the maestro, Andrea Pirlo, the Atomic Ant has all the power, pace and energy so crucial to success in MLS and has been, hands down, the best addition to MLS in 2015. To Italians, Pirlo is the genius and Giovinco is a kid who could never make his mark at Juventus. But to Americans, Giovinco is the odds on favorite to win the MVP this year.
This is not a unique phenomenon. The leagues of Europe are littered with players who shined in one league only to flop in another. The names Jonathan Woodgate (Newcastle to Real Madrid), Juan Sebastian Veron (Lazio to Manchester United), Andriy Shevchenko (AC Milan to Chelsea), Erik Lamela (Roma to Spurs), Gaizka Mendieta (Valencia to Lazio), Roberto Soldado (Valencia to Spurs), Kerrison, Denilson and dozens more should ring in the ears of those who wonder why MLS fans question whether a player who’s proven successful in Europe will succeed or fail in MLS. Indeed, even within a league players can experience radically different levels of success, see, e.g., Felipe Melo (Fiorentina to Juventus), Roque Santa Cruz (Blackburn to Manchester City), Andy Carroll (Newcastle to Liverpool) and Fernando Torres (Liverpool to Chelsea).
The difference is that most European fans interpret a player’s transition from one of great leagues of Europe to MLS with a bit of snickering and through the lens of confirmation bias. Take, for instance, an article published in yesterday’s Guardian about Ashley Cole (left back for Roma):
“[M]aybe he could join the semi-retirement home of Major League Soccer, and become the third member of England’s 100 Club, beside Gerrard and Frank Lampard, to have one last hurrah.” —Daniel Taylor (@DTguardian) (August 22, 2015) “Ashley Cole: why this could be arrivaderci to a brilliant career”, The Guardian
No one bothered to tell Mr. Taylor that the average player age in MLS is 27.6. The average age in the EPL? 26.5. Oh, and if one removes this year’s big DP signings (Pirlo, Villa, Lampard, Gerrard, Kaka, Drogba, and Giovinco) the average age of the other 558 players in MLS is 25.8, which would make MLS…. younger than the EPL. Of course, this is the same writer for The Guardian who described Jermaine Defoe’s signing for Toronto last year as a “soul-destroying” move so comments should be taken with the grain of salt. But what does it say when the Chief Football Writer for one of the largest papers in England continues to chant the “retirement home” mantra with no regard for the facts? Classic confirmation bias. If a legendary player from Europe takes the leap to MLS and succeeds, the European fan responds, “Of course he succeeded, MLS is a pub league – he’s the best player they’ve ever seen.” If a legendary player goes to MLS and fails, the European fan responds that, “Of course he couldn’t play there, MLS is a pub league – his teammates are all total crap.” These fans search for or interpret information in a way that confirms their preconceptions, a heuristic that researchers scrupulously try to avoid because it leads to erroneous conclusions.
My conclusion: England delivered us two of its greatest lions, but after three fortnights in a new land one appears a lion, the other a lamb. What can prospective MLS players learn from their travails?
Two years ago, the oldest known globe to depict the New World was discovered. Dated to 1504, the globe is two conjoined halves of ostrich eggs. North America is depicted as a series of scattered islands with the phrase, “Hic Sunt Dracones” in script where the North American mainland would be — a phrase which, translated from Latin, means “here be dragons.” MLS is a new world in more ways than one. So venture west at your own peril, sailors. Here be dragons.