Frank Lampard sat under a tent at Pier Five in Brooklyn Bridge Park. Behind him, stood the Brooklyn Bridge and the Manhattan skyline. Brooklyn is a long way from Stamford Bridge, the London pitch Lampard spent 13 years directing Chelsea FC.
For much of the world, New York City represents opportunity and freedom, or as one reporter phrased it to Lampard–hope and dreams. For the 36-year-old, the goals are different. In England, Lampard became one of the best midfielders of all-time in the world's most storied league in the nation that invented the game. Lampard does not need to establish himself.
After nearly 19 seasons in the Premier League, Major League Soccer represents a time for adventure. Lampard signed a two-year deal Thursday with New York City FC, which starts play in the 2015 season.
For MLS, it is the crossing of a bridge. Lampard represents so much more than a high-profile MLS signing. He is the legitimacy MLS has been waiting for.
Frank Lampard is the most important signing in MLS history.
Are you crazy, Jeffrey? DAVID BECKHAM! DAVID BECKHAM! DAVID BECKHAM! He has a movie named after him.
There is no doubt Beckham's 2007 signing with the Los Angeles Galaxy was a monumental moment for MLS. International players were not coming to MLS before Beckham. He opened the door for the likes of Thierry Henry, Rafael Marquez and Robbie Keane to cross the pond to the United States. He put fans in the seats. He gave MLS the marketing boost it desperately needed.
But Beckham's move was not perfect. Internally, he feuded with the Galaxy. Open Grant Wahl's "The David Beckham Experiment" and one may say he was a failed test case. He alienated fellow Galaxy star Landon Donovan and influenced general manager Alexi Lalas' firing. Those two have garnered critical roles in the growth of soccer in the U.S.
Beckham gave MLS a little boost, but he did not boost soccer in the United States the way people expected him too. Sure, he gave some legitimacy to MLS and was a face, but he did not go over the top. The success of the U.S. Men's National Team at the past World Cups has been a bigger factor in fueling American soccer's momentum.
Although Beckham sold Galaxy merchandise, he could not sell the rest of the league. For soccer to advance in the U.S., it needed success at the national level.
Frank Lampard arrives not just in the United States and not just in MLS, but in New York City, at the opportune time. He is not the name and brand of David Beckham and he perhaps is not as skilled as Thierry Henry. But Lampard may have a better formula than either of his two mega-star predecessors.
"The decision was pretty easy because of the way the club was sold to me," Lampard said. "The city, the challenge of taking on a new franchise, of being an experienced player in a group with a good young manager -- it's exciting."
— New York City FC (@NYCFC) July 24, 2014
Beckham played a few dozen minutes from Los Angeles traffic outside the downtown area. Henry plays a similar distance away from downtown New York City along the New Jersey Turnpike.
Lampard is about to play at Yankee Stadium, a short 4-train ride away from Midtown Manhattan. He also has a former Premier League stalwart in Claudio Reyna as sporting director and a former MLS MVP and MLS Cup champion coach in Jason Kreis.
"I've seen a real long term plan from everyone involved with the club," Lampard says. "I want to be a part of that. I want to test myself. I want to challenge myself. I want to be that leader. I want to be that person and not just on the pitch, but off the pitch who can help these things happen."
Lampard isn't looking to score some easy money at an end-of-career American vacation. He is too much of a competitor. His father, Frank Sr., played 19 professional seasons, including 18 with West Ham United. His uncle Harry Redknapp is one of the most Premier League's most respected managers. His cousin, Jamie Redknapp played nearly two decades, spending most of his career with Liverpool.
All Lampard knows is soccer. He is also a winner, claiming the 2012 UEFA Champions League Final as Chelsea's captain. Lampard wants to win in New York.
"From a soccer perspective, it's an absolute no-brainer," Kreis said of the negotiations with Lampard. "That just leaves the box of talking to him and meeting him as a person and understanding his character and if his vision for the rest of his career goes along with ours. And it does."
Kreis says when he meets with Reyna and other front office members to talk about building a roster, which now includes Lampard, Spain's all-time national scorer David Villa, Jeb Brovsky and Josh Saunders, they look for three traits: Soccer ability, leadership and character. Kreis said Lampard was an "A-plus-plus-plus" in all three categories.
"This is a guy who's been a captain at Chelsea," Kreis said. "If you spend five minutes with Mr. Lampard here, you learn very quickly he's a terrific character."
Lampard's day was full of Beckham references. He was asked if he consulting Beckham on his decision.
"No, I didn't," said Lampard, who mentioned he knows David pretty well from Team England experiences.
Lampard did say he has talked about MLS with Becks in the past: "He speaks nothing but great things about the league and the people he's worked with here."
Lampard was told some of the children attending his introduction were murmuring about him being better than Beckham.
"I don't know if I'm better than David. It's opinions, but I appreciate the sentiment," he said.
Lampard can blush all he wants. Aside from the on-field comparisons, deep down, Lampard probably realizes his character is stronger than Beckham's persona. More specifically, it is more suited to help grow MLS.
Lampard hits MLS right as soccer is booming. Another Round of 16 appearance in the World Cup had American fans buzzing. After the U.S. technically finished ahead of England in the same group in 2010, the U.S. progressed further than England in 2014. Meanwhile, the top leagues in Europe and MLS can be found on mainstream cable and in bars. Mastering the FIFA Soccer video game series is one of the most respected skills anyone under age 25 can have.
Lampard is not blind to all this.
"Back home in England, we saw David Beckham come here," Lampard said. "We saw the league take big strides, not just because of David. I think [it is] because of a lot of stable work made by the MLS by people behind the scenes. The quality has gone up and up. I've been watching games in the MLS back home for a long time now. Big players are coming out here. David Villa signing here, Jermain Defoe, Robbie Keane and the American home base players. You only have to look at what U.S.A. did in the World Cup and what imprint they left on the world, not just back home and the character shown in the quality. The respect MLS has in the world has gone up."
Whoa. That is a serious statement. Chelsea's all-time leading scorer and a three-time England World Cup member has that much respect for MLS. And he also has the foresight to recognize MLS and American soccer's rise did not just come from Beckham's American tour.
"I know from talking in dressing rooms over the last few years, the players are interested in moving out here and playing. It might not have been the same five or ten years ago," Lampard added.
This guy may be the total package. As a player, he was still an integral part of Chelsea and the England World Cup roster a few weeks ago. There is no reason to believe Lampard will not be a top player, if not the best player in MLS when he begins play in March 2015.
"He could have stayed at Chelsea. They wanted him," Reyna said.
Meanwhile, Lampard is an even more useful presence off the pitch. Lampard comes over as a respected figure in the London media. On Thursday, he talked about being an ambassador for the sport in the United States. He talked about visiting New York City memorials. He talked about the growth of the U.S. Men's National Team. He referred to Yankee Stadium as "iconic" multiple times.
While Lampard faced a couple dozen members of the media, fans donning Chelsea jerseys swelled in greater numbers. Lampard answered questions from fans during the press conference, took pictures with anyone who put a camera in his face and signed as many items as he could. NYCFC personnel had to drag Lampard away more than once.
Akram Hasanov, 27, was one of the supporters in attendance. He moved to the United States in 2007 from Tajikistan and now lives in Brooklyn. Hasanov did not go to work Thursday because he said he "had to come" to see his favorite player. He said he has 10 Lampard jerseys and will soon add a NYCFC kit to his closet.
"Obviously I'll be a New York City FC fan, although it's really tough to support a team owned by Man City. For Lampard I'll support them," Hasanov said.
Well, there is Example A: Bring a big name from Europe to the U.S. and gain fans. Lampard is going to bring in a bunch of his loyalists to Yankee Stadium.
Hasanov recognizes the growth of soccer since his arrival in the U.S. A sport once thought of as obscure is now earning legitimacy.
"When I came, you couldn't find a place to watch the Champions League," he said. "Now, go into any bar and they'll show it. Big names just keep coming to this country and it's creating more soccer fans."
Andres Loaiza, a board member of the Third Rail, NYCFC's official supporters group, greeted Lampard along with fellow members of the fan base. NYCFC has not even played a game and has a fan base. At the first meeting in February, the group had six members. Now, it has more than 400 paid members. From an x's and o's perspective Loaiza sees success in the Lampard signing.
"He's going to be a European legend and the fact that we get him at a stage in his career where he still has a lot to give to the game, it can't get any better than that," Loaiza said.
The signings of Villa and Lampard give reason for New Yorkers to jump on the NYCFC bandwagon. Other than the convenience of Yankee Stadium and the rising popularity of soccer, the big name players make NYCFC a big deal. The team has also been linked to Barcelona star Xavi, as one more spot still remains open for a designated player.
"You have a lot of elite players now really taking the MLS serious. This is a big market and soccer has grown in the U.S. You have a lot of people excited about soccer. It's only going to get better," Loaiza said.
While dozens of teenage and middle-aged individuals showed up for the press conference, only children got to participate in a clinic with Lampard. It is poetic Lampard simultaneously worked with young soccer players while promoting his addition. It is going to be part of the job for a while.
"As an ambassador to a new franchise, I think it's important not just what we do on the pitch but embracing the community. You saw a little glimpse there and that's not just for cameras," he said after the clinic.
Seven years ago, Beckham arrived in the U.S. to play in a league with many question marks. There was no doubt Beckham was not going to be playing with elite competition and he would be the main attraction wherever he went. The stint was almost like a circus act. Beckham, along with his wife and former Spice Girl, Victoria, embraced show business, but they did less than expected promoting actual soccer.
Lampard comes into a different scenario.
"I want to make New York City FC a team New Yorkers can be proud of," he said.
It is in his blood. It is in his skills. It is in its character. Lampard is a competitor. His next challenge is to build a brand and champion at NYCFC. He could not be more excited to be cast in the role.
For Kreis, Lampard is a step in a direction beyond MLS legitimacy.
"I couldn't be more proud to be part of what I believe is going to become a truly fantastic club, not only in American soccer, but in world soccer," Kreis said.
It is hard to blame Kreis. He just signed a world-renowned name, still holding talent, with the demeanor to run for political office. Lampard does not shy away from the spotlight, but he does not bask in it. He grasps it and structures it how he likes.
In New York City, Lampard has the freedom to build what he wants.
"A city of hopes and dreams -- that's a place you want to go play," he said with a smile.
David Beckham may have established the blueprint for MLS bridge. Frank Lampard just crossed it.
-- Follow Jeffrey Eisenband on Twitter @JeffEisenband.