"Frank Lampard, MVP?" There was a moment earlier this season when "Frank Lampard, credible DP" was looking like a stretch; injury and the symbolically fraught nature of his absence since being signed had seen to that. When New York City FC's home form hit a fresh low in the 7-0 loss to the Red Bulls in May, the Yankee Stadium public-address announcer asking the crowd to give it up for "Suuuuuper Frank Lampard," as he entered the debacle as a late substitute, was tone deaf at best.
And yet, somewhere between that moment and the player walking off the field on "Frank Lampard night" on Thursday, having won the game with the second of his two goals, Lampard started doing the thing he was bought for, and doing it in a way that makes his value to his team indisputable.
Crashing the box to plunder goals against defenses already worn ragged by David Villa's movement, Lampard has been showing some of the forcefulness and timing of old, as he finally puts his injuries behind him. And he's brought those around him into focus too; Pirlo looks more free to deliver, Tommy McNamara and Jack Harrison's runs look more intelligent with Lampard as a counterpoint and Villa too looks more liberated from not carrying so much of the responsibility for occupying opposing defenses.
A lot of these developments -- the confidence for fellow midfielders and attackers to do their job knowing someone is there to optimize all potential outcomes -- are due to Lampard's increased effectiveness.
It's all been very impressive, and his most recent exploits just underline his value. Picture all of last season and the early part of this one, as NYCFC wrestled unsuccessfully with the idea of "home advantage" on the tight Yankee Stadium field. Picture the number of blown leads or late-goal losses, and flash forward to the game against D.C. on Thursday, as Lamar Neagle rose to beat some underwhelming marking and head home a stoppage-time leveler for the visitors.
At first, the scene looked familiar: Josh Saunders' disgusted thousand-yard stare, the NYCFC defenders looking everywhere but at each other and the almost audible whoosh of the air being sucked out of Yankee Stadium by the latest gut punch. We'd been there before, many times.
But this time there was a coda; having already put his team ahead with a few minutes of normal time to go, Lampard showed up again to win the game definitively, feinting once in the box to make space for a cool low finish across Bill Hamid. The Englishman went skipping beyond the hoardings in giddy celebration and a moment or so later he was punching the air at the final whistle as NYCFC secured another win.
The club had themed the evening in honor of Lampard's 300th league goal and his winning brace was a perfect way to mark his continued value. A few months ago, had a similar celebration been mooted it would have had a valedictory feel -- honoring the shadow of a once great player for what used to happen. But Lampard has moved from afterthought to centerpiece so quickly that the conversation around him has also shifted definitively.
Well, almost definitively. If there's a question mark against Lampard, it's still about the time he has remaining to make a lasting impact. The questions about his desire and effectiveness this season have been answered, even if the answers took a while to get here, but the long and unsatisfactory arrival process will always be part of the story given that there's a likely age limit on how long he can ever stay in New York as an effective force.
But the very fact that he has transcended many of the doubts around him to be in credible running for the MVP award says a lot about Lampard. And his claim is credible.
To anyone who might point out that said value has been compressed into a segment of the season, you could also point out that his likely rivals for the award have had patchy seasons too. Bradley Wright-Phillips has had another high-scoring season that should not be diminished by the drought that preceded the run of goals. Sebastian Giovinco has motored into contention for back-to-back awards by also finding momentum in the middle of the season. Arguably only Ignacio Piatti has been on his game since the start, but then again, Montreal have been stumbling right at the moment that rival star players have been bursting into view, so you could argue he's fading.
And there's a context for "value" that favors Lampard, just as it might have done for Giovinco had there been a tighter race last year. Because just as the Italian drove Toronto to a first ever playoff spot last season, Lampard may be helping drive NYCFC to an Eastern Conference-winning run in only their second season, to overturn the disappointment of the club's first season. It's not quite as dramatic as the worst-to-first turnaround that Ben Olsen coaxed out of D.C. United between 2013 and 2014, but in terms of changing the expectation around NYCFC, Lampard has arguably done as much as anyone to make them finally look less flaky.
And given that Lampard had become a symbolic as much as a technical problem, it's perhaps appropriate that his value to his team has been both technical and in helping that rather more intangible cultural shift to take place. That's lasting value.