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Between the events surrounding Frank Lampard and New York City FC and a couple of friendly debates on Twitter with some fellow Mane Land writers and Orlando City SC supporters, I have been thinking a lot about the debate between the importance of player and club. Just how important is one player in the modern age?
To begin, I have to say I completely understand the reaction out of New York. Their dealings with Manchester City are starting to feel a bit like Lando Calrissian's dealings with Darth Vader. The ever changing arrangement that MLS and NYCFC have with Manchester City is doing the unthinkable, making the largest sports market in America look very minor league. For more, head over to our good friends at Hudson River Blue for some great insight into this weeks events and the fallout.
When considering the importance of one player, I thought instantly about my personal favorite player. Former Manchester United and Wales winger, Ryan Giggs, the most decorated player in the history of the English Premier League and, some have argued, one of the best to ever play the game. Yet, also one of the best to never set foot at a World Cup or UEFA European Championship.
Two other Manchester United greats, George Best and Eric Cantona, have never played at the World Cup. On the club level, these players fit into a system with other talented players around them. Place those same players into weak national sides, and even their talent wasn't enough to take the team to the World Cup.
These are quick examples off the top of my head. For every Pele or Diego Maradona who has led their team to glory, there a lot of players with buckets of talent who were not surrounded by the right team and unable to achieve at the highest stage. In soccer, maybe more than other popular sports, the team matters.
American sports fans are familiar with the importance of the quarterback in American football or the pitcher in baseball. These positions have an elevated level of importance due to the way the game is played. That isn't to discredit the other roles played on the field, but more to point out the way in which many Americans view "the player" vs. "the team." Basketball, with its five players on the court at at time, has a similar ability to elevate the importance of a star player. Those of us in Orlando still recall the Orlando Magic's up and down seasons after losing big name players.
MLS is an exceptionally competitive league. While a player like Lampard would certainly help a side, one player won't make or break a season. Consider David Beckham's arrival at LA Galaxy. They did not win an MLS Cup until his final two seasons, once they surrounded him with the right players and the team gained cohesion. That team, however, remained competitive after Beckham's retirement due to its overall talent. As good as Thierry Henry's tenure in America was, he left the league with no MLS Cup titles.
Sure, we love the big names. We love the goals and impressive plays from the game's most talented players. In this modern era of sports with players coming and going with ease, it is the club that remains the constant for the supporter. New York City FC, and other MLS clubs for that matter, would do right to take this experience as a lesson of how to emphasize player signings without letting them eclipse the club.
Or, as one of my coaches used to remind us, "it's the name on the front of the shirt, not the one on the back that matters."