There had been rumors, and then it was confirmed - Frank Lampard is ending the Barclays Premier League season with Manchester City. It is certainly causing far more drama than MLS new boys New York City FC would have liked. Let's take a look at the general time-line that got us where we are today:
Rumors: For the last few years there were lots of rumors about Frank Lampard coming to MLS. He is getting older, and with MLS still regarded as a league to go to when you are nearly retired, it was bound to happen.
June 24th 2014: The press conference made it official. Along with David Villa, Frank Lampard was one of the big name Designated Players that New York City FC were going to build their inaugural season around. Everyone announced that Lampard had signed for NYCFC on a free transfer. This includes MLS - who even added Lampard to their player profile pages.
Loaned Out: Since NYCFC were not playing at any level, both Lampard and Villa (along with fellow singing Andrew Jacobson) were loaned out to keep them fresh. Villa went to fellow Manchester City connected team Melbourne City, to play in the Australian A-League. Lampard however stayed in England, and signed for the "big club" on loan. He wasn't ever going to be an every game starter in a team full of superstars, but was there as depth.
Then the unthinkable happened for NYCFC. Lampard started to score goals, and important goals at that. One of which included a late equaliser against his old club Chelsea. The rumors started to swirl that Lampard may not be in NY come the start of preseason training, or even until the premier league season ended. The official MLS website ran this article in November, where Lampard's agent shot down the rumors, saying he will be in New York come January.
However with Lampard continuing to score goals, January the 1st came along and on the same day that Lampard scored another late important goal (this time a winner against Sunderland) It was announced that Lampard's loan was extended until the end of the season.
This announcement of the loan being extended outraged the NYCFC fan groups enough that they got in touch with Fox Soccer who published an article explaining their stance. Instead of the rumors and jokes being that Lampard will not play until June/July, they are now that he will never play for New York. Lampard was one of the big signings, he was being used to sell tickets and shirts. New York supporters have paid a lot of money thinking that he would be their midfield goalscoring threat and superstar, helping them get to the playoffs.
Then things started to get very complicated. The Manchester City owners group announced that Lampard was not on loan from NYCFC but was a Manchester City player. This started a lot of conversations within the Brotherly Game staff. How could this be? It was announced everywhere that he was a NYCFC player on loan to Manchester City. There were discussions on third party ownership, which is illegal (something that West Ham United found to their cost when they were found guilty of signing Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano with a third party). Have the ownership group signed Lampard and therefore Manchester City are breaking those third party rules? Seeing the trouble it caused West Ham I very much doubted that was the case.
Later that night, we came across this tweet :-
Lampard #MCFC deal was not loan but season-long contract signed as free agent with break clause scheduled to end his stay at midnight 31 Dec
— David Ornstein (@bbcsport_david) December 31, 2014
Basically, Frank Lampard wasn't ever a NYCFC player. He signed a contract with Manchester City, and was registered as a Manchester City player outright. The contract he signed was for a year, and there was a clause to break the contract mid-season (i.e. in January) to allow Lampard to sign for NYCFC. That clause could be removed if Lampard was doing well enough to stay around until the end of the season. If Lampard was not getting playing time and not contributing, he would be in New York preparing for an MLS season today.
Now all of that is cleared up and we now know he was a Manchester City player all along, let us think about what that means. Firstly, the legality of everything. There is nothing that has been done wrong according to the FIFA rules. If Lampard was on loan and the loan got extended, there was nothing wrong there either. It happens all over the world - players can be loaned out, recalled when the team that owns him wants and the loans can be extended.
However, where things may become murky is the fact that MLS, NYCFC, Manchester City and Lampard all lied about the fact Lampard was a NYCFC player on loan to Manchester City. This can certainly go badly for all involved if the New York fans, who are obviously upset decide to claim false advertising. How many of the fans are only buying tickets because of Lampard? What if Lampard never joins New York and stays at Manchester City for another year or two? The lawyers among you will know far more than I do about chances of the fans suing those involved, but I know that it would be something I would look into.
When discussing signings with Union fans (or more the lack of official word of signings), I always say it is dangerous to announce things before a player officially signs a contract. Anything can (and sometimes will) go wrong. Going back in history, in Scotland possibly one of the biggest examples of that happened in 1989 when Maurice Johnston (ex Kansas City Wiz player and Toronto FC coach) signed for Glasgow Rangers. Until he signed on to play two years at Ibrox, it was announced he was going to sign for cross-town rivals Celtic. Celtic sold the player he was going to replace (Frank Mcavennie to West Ham) and had even paraded Johnston in front of the Celtic fans. However, money won out and Johnston had a change of heart, signed for Rangers, and probably the most controversial signing in history was complete.
It is clear from that, until a player actually signs a contract with you, don't announce anything. Money, the chance to play in a better league for a better team can all sway a player. If you announce a player is signing, he then becomes available for other teams to come in and gazump you. No matter what the NYCFC fans think, they are nowhere near as big or important as Manchester City to either their shared ownership or Lampard himself. If both Manchester City want Lampard and Lampard wants to stay there, he will be a Manchester City player for the 2015/16 BPL season.
Without considering any potential legal issues that the Lampard saga has caused, there is one thing for sure - this looks bad for MLS and NYCFC. Lampard and the ownership group likely won't care about how it looks for MLS if he does not come over in June. However, will the fans ever trust their club again - it won't take much for things to go wrong. If there are no fans, no stadium and no star players, the joke of NYCFC being the next Chivas isn't a joke any more. Before they have even kicked a ball in MLS, there are black marks against the club. The announcement of having a player signed when you don't have that player signed makes everyone involved look incompetent, and may hinder MLS becoming acknowledged as a top league. With the CBA potentially changing how MLS is run in relation to transfer policies, this certainly shows there should be far more transparency about how deals are made and announced.
Lastly - I'll bring it all back to a Union point of view. Union fans, I am sure you are all worried about the lack of official word on signings. However, with the media circus starting with Gerrard, the Lampard saga (which is bound to continue) as well as remembering the past when we were embarrassed with our bid on Michael Bradley, maybe it is a good thing there are no silly rumors to embarrass the team - and fans - with.