2014 is closing on a low note for New York City FC. Tonight, Frank Lampard's loan to Manchester City was officially extended through the end of the Premier League season in May. As we look at the details of how this all happened, two questions pop up like a clown punching bag:
- Was Frank Lampard ever a New York City player?
- Did New York City mischaracterize the deal they professedly signed with Lampard?
Let's look at what evidence we have on hand. First, the official announcement from New York City, which you can read here. This stands out:
Lampard joins David Villa, Jeb Brovsky and Josh Saunders on the roster at the Club and has signed a two-year contract which starts August 1st. He will wear the number 8 jersey, the number he has worn throughout his decorated career in European football. (emphasis added)
There's little ambiguity about that. No one reading that can be faulted for thinking that Lampard had signed with New York City, and if he was going to play anywhere else, it would be as a loanee, with New York City able to recall him at any time. So far, so good.
Then Lampard went on loan to Manchester City. Contrary to expectations, Lampard performed well - and the prospect of extending his loan began to be mooted. With that, the first elements of uncertainty with his exact status started arising. First, Lampard's salary wasn't released in the September salary dump (PDF) by the MLS Players Union. More to the point, as the notion of extending Lampard's loan gained currency, we started seeing his loan to Manchester City referred to as a "contract". Like this:
The good form of the 36-year-old, who scored twice in the midweek 7-0 Capital One Cup win over Sheffield Wednesday to add to the goal against his former club, has led to speculation City will look to extend the loan stint which currently runs to the start of January.
However, his agent Steve Kutner has denied the loan has been extended: "Frank's contract with Manchester City runs until the 1st January. This is our only comment." (emphasis added)
Wait, what? I thought it was a loan deal. What is this about a "contract" with Manchester City?
That's where things stayed, in a weird limbo as Lampard's sparkling run of play made an extension of his loan an ever more certain probability. As December loomed, so did the questions: was it a loan? If so, why wouldn't New York City simply recall him once it ended? If not, then what did he actually sign in July, if anything? It didn't help matters that no one except Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini was commenting about it. At least, Pellegrini maintained that it was a loan:
"It's not so easy because Frank is a New York City player. He is only on loan until December 31, so we must respect the other people.
Now we come to the last day of the last month of 2014. Any loan would presumably expire tonight at the stroke of midnight. There's only one problem: City, along with the rest of the Premier League, play tomorrow. Since Lampard would no longer be on loan, he would be ineligible to play for Manchester City, until the Premier League can ratify the loan. The soonest that can happen is Friday. This would make Lampard eligible to play in the FA Cup against Sheffield Wednesday on Sunday, but not on Thursday against Sunderland.
What to do, what to do? We heard that Manchester City were desperately interceding with the Premier League in order to make Lampard eligible to play tomorrow. Along those lines, Pellegrini included Lampard in Manchester City's match roster for tomorrow's game. Asked during his press conference if this was foolhardy, Pellegrini dismissed it.
"If you ask me what I want, of course, it is for him to stay here until the end of the season," Pellegrini said in response. "Yes, he is in the squad list for tomorrow. I said during December we will know what happens with the future of Frank Lampard. It is important for him to stay with us. Today we finish December. I hope today we will have news...We understand that Frank is eligible to play but it is not a thing I want to continue talking about because there are a lot of parts involved in this discussion and it should remain private. It is my intention for Frank to stay here. He also wants to stay but it is not easy just to do in two or three days." (quote condensed)
But how? Comes now the BBC's David Ornstein with the particulars:
Lampard "signed" for New York City FC in July but with the new MLS season not starting until March, he joined Manchester City - who part-own New York City - until January.
Crucially, this was not a loan deal but a short-term contract signed as a free agent. It is understood the contract was for the entire season, with a break clause that was agreed would be activated at midnight tonight.
City needed that break clause removed if Lampard was to remain with them, which happened today.
But there was no need to re-sign him or re-register him with the Premier League because he was already on a contract until the end of the season and therefore registered as a City player - eligible for Sunderland and beyond. All that needed to happen was removal of the break clause.
Amendments to existing contracts require Premier League board ratification, which happened today.
All of this calls into question the exact nature of Lampard's signing/contract/agreement with New York City.
Left unstated was how, exactly, Ornstein discovered this news, and he's not saying. Players in MLS sign a contract with the league, not individual clubs, and the league does not divulge those specific contracts. Notably, Ornstein's account is at odds with everything else we've seen reported up until now. No one at MLS is commenting, obviously. MLS deputy commissioner Mark Abbott only had this to say:
"Frank Lampard's performance at Manchester City reaffirms that he is one of the world's elite midfielders and we look forward to him joining NYCFC during the 2015 season."
Claudio Reyna was similarly opaque:
"Frank is a star and it is no surprise that Manchester City is rewarded by his contributions on the field every single day. He is eager to get to New York once his commitment ends in England and will be available to play on arrival as a permanent member of the squad given he will come to us having played at the highest level."
The statement also sounds this ominous note:
His exact starting date with New York City FC will be confirmed as the EPL and MLS seasons unfold. All parties remain in ongoing dialogue to create the best outcome for all.
And SI's Grant Wahl has the crowning point about this. Lampard may never have been under contract with New York City:
NYCFC source says Lampard's contract is owned by Man City & isn't a loan. Only adds questions & doesn't take away from message being sent.— Grant Wahl (@GrantWahl) January 1, 2015
If Ornstein and Wahl are correct - and I see no reason why they or the BBC and SI would knowingly report something false - then both New York City and Manchester City have been mischaracterizing the nature of Frank Lampard's contract with the club from the beginning. There's one simple, easy way to resolve this confusion:
Release the contract.
That's it. Let everyone know what the deal is. Post the contract on New York City's site. Nothing short of that resolves questions. At this point, we have no reason to believe anything that New York City or Manchester City say about the deal, because they're compromised. Given the opacity and shadiness surrounding Lampard's situation, why should we extend them the benefit of the doubt? They've had every opportunity to resolve those doubts, and they've passed them up. Release the contract, and those doubts go away.
Until that happens, we should have every doubt that Frank Lampard is a New York City player, or that he'll ever take the field for New York City. We should, from now on, treat Lampard as what he is: a Manchester City player.