MLS tenures of Kaka, Pirlo reveal risk in leaning on legends made elsewhere
A few minutes before the end of New York City FC's Eastern Conference semifinal second leg against Columbus Crew SC, with the team needing a goal to complete an unprecedented comeback, coach Patrick Vieira subbed on Andrea Pirlo.
Time was, a tiring team like Columbus might have reacted with panic at that development; a close-fought series was coming down to the wire and now its opponent was sending in a World Cup winner with a sublime touch on the ball, to probably tilt the game decisively.
But this was not that Pirlo. This was a peripheral player being sent on for what would be his last few minutes as a professional, in the hope rather than expectation that he could supply a telling pass to win the game.
To put into perspective the disconnect between reputation and effectiveness, as decisive substitutions went, Gregg Berhalter's introduction of Lalas Abubakar as a third defender for Crew SC had a much more impactful effect than Pirlo's cameo. And the likelihood of another Crew SC substitute, Kekuta Manneh, stripping the Italian veteran before streaking away for an away goal to end the contest looked much more on the cards than NYCFC's not-so-secret weapon finding his range.
But can't we just remember Pirlo as the player he was, rather than dwelling on the leggy anomaly he became in NYCFC's retooled 2017 midfield? In time we will. Pirlo's deftness on the ball at its peak, and his vision and economy of touch, will be what determines his legacy -- along with his trophies, of course. His MLS period will be a tiny footnote on a great career.
The trouble is, the paradigm of Pirlo -- or for that matter, Kaka, who left Orlando City SC at the end of this season and whose career may be at its end -- persists in MLS, even when these types of players retire. Both those players leave 2015 expansion teams who will spend this offseason reflecting a little more ruefully than before that "you never get a second chance to make a first impression," but will other teams learn the lesson?
Both Orlando and NYCFC started their existence playing without a permanent home. Orlando has since acquired a great downtown stadium to house whatever incarnation of the team comes next, while NYCFC continues to couch-surf at Yankee Stadium, MLB playoffs permitting. Both teams determined that the best way to make an initial splash in their respective markets was to attract marquee names, perhaps hoping to make up for the fact that neither owned their marquee.
For Orlando, that meant targeting Florida's substantial Brazilian population, as well as those just curious about seeing a former World Footballer of the Year. For City Football Group, it meant trying to bludgeon its way into a cramped New York sports market, with a clutch of brand names: David Villa, Frank Lampard and Pirlo.
We know how that turned out: in its first season, NYCFC endured rather than enjoyed the effects of signing big-name talent. Villa, younger than the other two and with more of his lasting legacy at stake, was the sole success and is woven into the foundational mythology of the team. Lampard had his effective moments when he eventually got here, but he was never here long enough to matter, and Pirlo never racked up enough dead-ball highlight-reel moments to make up for what the team lost in mobility with him on the field.
The Orlando and NYCFC front offices might argue that this is beside the point when considering all the factors that go into marketing an expansion team from a standing start -- and yes, Orlando already existed as a successful USL side, but there's still a leap in the demands and imagination needed to make a successful MLS team. NYCFC would say that it couldn't, for example, take the route its neighbors did, not only for not having a long-running academy like the Red Bulls but in needing the oxygen of attention in the most competitive media market in the world. Orlando had to make an instant splash in an often-moribund Florida sporting market.
But, Atlanta. Unless you count Kenwyne Jones as a marquee name, Atlanta United had perhaps the most successful launch in MLS history by putting its name-brand faith in its coach rather than putting a big name on the field and asking the moving parts around that name to compensate for qualities it no longer reliably possessed. In fact, for what it's worth, Jones has been a peripheral figure under the speed-first philosophy of Tata Martino, while the younger profile of designated players at Atlanta has shown a viable alternative for the mechanism that, already, a few short years on, has made the approach of NYCFC and Orlando look tired.
Big names will continue to come to MLS to see out their careers; a tier or two down, big-name U.S. players may continue to benefit from a market skewed in their favor (though their failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup probably represents a moment where that market massively corrects); shirt sales will still be monitored as a metric of success. But if soccer in the U.S. wants to use the fallout from World Cup failure to critically examine itself, one factor for its club owners to consider is the exact nature of the value they are adding when they tell their stories by borrowing from legends made elsewhere.
Graham Parker writes for ESPN FC, FourFourTwo and Howler. He covers MLS and the U.S. national teams. Follow him on Twitter @grahamparkerfc.