At the age of 36, Andrea Pirlo left Juventus to join newly established New York City FC. His three seasons veered from the sublime to the ridiculous.
Andrea Pirlo didn’t exactly fall in love with MLS.
“It’s a very hard league to play in,” the midfielder admitted in 2016. “It’s very physical, there’s a lot of running. So there is a lot of physical work and, to me, in my mind, too little play.”
Clearly, when agreeing to sign for New York City FC a year earlier, Pirlo had expected a little more freedom on the ball, a little more space around the centre circle to play his trademark 40-yard passes.
And to anyone unfamiliar with the US league, that might have seemed a fair assumption.
After all, Pirlo wasn’t the first 30-something to head across the Atlantic. If so many players were doing it, surely ageing knees weren’t much of a problem there? Surely the game was played at a leisurely pace?
Unfortunately, Pirlo quickly found that MLS can actually be crueler to its veterans than Serie A.
Not that the Maestro’s time in the Bronx was a complete disaster. Far from it. Over three seasons at the newly formed New York side, Pirlo registered several trademark assists, occasionally showing glimpses of his unique genius.
He was popular in America, and he helped his team become a major force in just its second year of existence.
But Pirlo’s career epilogue certainly had its ups and downs.
Had you been asked to predict Pirlo’s MLS career trajectory from his debut alone, you might have earmarked him as one of the league’s best ever imports — someone as good as Bradley Wright-Phillips, perhaps.
Because when the midfielder first stepped onto the pitch at Yankee Stadium, everything he touched turned to gold.
With New York City 2-1 up against Kaka’s Orlando City, Pirlo came on in the 57th minute. And though the club may have been brand new, the fans knew what a special talent they had before them. “We want Pirlo!” they chanted.
When head coach Jason Kreis granted their wish, the noise increased tenfold.
You probably wouldn’t describe Pirlo as somebody who gets ‘pumped up’, but the noisy reception was followed by an impressive performance. The Italian played a key role in two further New York City goals, contributing to a dramatic 5-3 victory.
“It was great because I could tell that [the fans] wanted me to play,” Pirlo said after the match. “When I got on the pitch, it was absolutely amazing to hear all of the applause. It was very emotional to hear and I really did appreciate it.”
New York City could only finish eighth (out of 10) in their debut Eastern Conference campaign, but 2016 saw an improvement from the team — and more good stuff from Pirlo.
The Maestro registered six assists in 2016 as the club finished second, and in June he scored his sole MLS goal with a perfect free-kick against Philadelphia Union.
Pirlo was never truly dominant in New York, but his sophomore campaign had enough moments of magic to justify his presence.
Perhaps it was New York City’s determination to make a statement following their recent arrival in the league, but the signing of Pirlo seemed more of a business decision than a footballing one.
When the Italian joined midway through the club’s inaugural season, not long after playing in the 2015 Champions League final for Juve, the club was obviously pleased with its capture.
“We are getting a player with a competitive spirit and a winning mentality,” said coach Kreis. “He has not only won a World Cup, he was the Serie A Player of the Year in three of the last four seasons.”
From a PR perspective, the signing made total sense — especially for a team looking to attract interest from its local Italian communities.
The squad list, however, told a different story.
Pirlo, 36 at the time, became the club’s third ‘Designated Player’ — a player who, under MLS rules, can be paid bucketloads of cash without it counting toward the strict salary cap. David Villa was another of the club’s first DPs, and he went on to become a legend of the league.
But New York City had also brought in a chunkier-than-ever Frank Lampard for their inaugural season.
Two 36-year-old central midfielders, neither of which had much interest in defending? It seemed like a recipe for disaster, and a backward step for a league trying to shed its image as a retirement club.
Moreover, each of those three superstars was paid around $6million per year — $115,000 per week.
Villa repaid those earnings with a shedload of goals, but Pirlo and Lampard, expected to work in unlikely tandem, found it harder to portray themselves as more than just poster
boys men for an emerging brand.
Pirlo ($5.9m annual salary) Lampard ($6m) & Villa ($5.6m) part of New York City team that lose 7-0 at home to Red Bulls. The American dream.
— Daniel McDonnell (@McDonnellDan) May 21, 2016
Throughout the later stages of his MLS stint, it became harder to judge Pirlo’s performances in isolation from his massive wages. Because while his touch never deserted him, that “competitive spirit” mentioned by Jason Kreis was nonexistent.
In fact, most of Pirlo’s lowest moments in sky blue were a result of laziness.
The Italian’s laid-back style, seen as a kind of coolness and unflappability in Europe, now betrayed a comical lack of interest.
The nadir came in a 4-0 defeat to Toronto FC, when NYC were 1-0 down in the 67th minute and Pirlo found himself on the edge of a defensive wall, directly across from a familiar face.
Four years prior, Pirlo had used a set piece situation to assist the diminutive Sebastian Giovinco at Juventus.
Now he was up against his energetic and in-form compatriot.
Giovinco, a true star of MLS, struck the free-kick sweetly, but the 38-year-old Pirlo — his head elsewhere — cowered behind his neighbour in the wall.
And although the veteran would not have been able to stop the ball even with a leap, the blatant shirking of defensive duties was unforgivable.
He was immediately substituted.
An example to follow?
At that point, it was clear that Pirlo was doing more harm than good in the New York City midfield.
In fairness to him though, it was only partly his own fault.
From the get-go, it was clear that the club’s hierarchy had not developed a system that would suit their Italian asset. First it was the misguided attempt to pair Pirlo with Lampard, then the signing of all-action playmaker Maximiliano Moralez, another imperfect match for the veteran, in early 2017.
In David Villa, Pirlo certainly had a willing recipient of pinpoint long balls. But with nobody like a Gattuso or Vidal to do the hard yards alongside him, his lack of defensive nous was made too apparent, too often.
So while Pirlo departed the club with the best wishes of his employer and fans, his three seasons in New York were hardly a great success.
And it’s surely no coincidence that the club’s recent glories — they finished top of the Eastern Conference in 2019 — were achieved with no ageing superstars whatsoever.
Their highest-paid player, the aforementioned Moralez, earns a third of what Pirlo received.
“I think [Pirlo] has meant a lot to this football club,” said Patrick Vieira, then coach of New York City, after Pirlo’s last match.
“He’s been a professional. He’s been a really good example for the young players that we have on our team and if they conduct themselves like Andrea, I think they will have a good career.”
Actually, you suspect that only Pirlo himself could act like Pirlo and get away with it — and that’s no bad thing at all.