Andrea Pirlo: “I am here to play, but I don’t decide. That is for the coach to decide.” (Adam Hunger/USA TODAY Sports)

By Michael Lewis

FrontRowSoccer.com Editor

PURCHASE, N.Y. — In star-studded and legendary 22-year professional soccer career that includes playing for World Cup, UEFA Champions League and FIFA Club World Cup championship sides, among others, Andrea Pirlo has become accustomed to playing late into matches if not completing them.

This Major League Soccer season, however, has been quite different.

In New York City FC’s seven games, the 37-year-old Italian midfielder has been replaced five times. And his exits have been getting earlier and earlier.

If the former Italian international midfielder has a problem with that, he is not saying.

In an interview with reporters after NYCFC training at SUNY-Purchase Wednesday afternoon, Pirlo talked about his early exits from matches and he said he did not have any problems.

“I am here to play, but I don’t decide,” he said in English. “That is for the coach to decide. That is his position. No problem for me. When he decides I play, I play. When they decide not to play, I go out, but I am one of the 18 players.”

Pirlo played the entire 90 minutes but twice this season — the 1-0 season-opening loss at Orlando City SC March 5 and the 1-1 home draw with the Montreal Impact March 19.

In the other five matches, he has been replaced in the 76th minute (a 4-0 home win over D.C. United March 12), 63rd minute (a 2-1 home win over San Jose Earthquakes), 74th minute (a 2-1 road defeat at D.C.), 77th minute (a 2-0 road victory at the Philadelphia Union) and 55th minute (a 2-1 home defeat to Orlando this past Sunday). The most recent game was Pirlo’s earliest sub.

Pirlo said he was game fit. “I feel good,” he said. “I can play. At this moment I am good.”

The midfielder’s response to being substituted came as no surprise to head coach Patrick Vieira.

“He gave you the answer. That is why I have a massive respect for Andrea, David [Villa] or Frank [Lampard] last year,” he said. “When we are talking about real champions, it’s not just about what they’re doing on the field, it’s how they [comport] themselves as a person. And they know that a coach makes a decision for the good of the team, rightly or wrongly.”

Vieira said that he would not be surprised at all if Pirlo, a vital member of Italy’s 2006 world championship side, was unhappy. Every player wants to play.

“I don’t expect Andrea to be happy when he’s off,” he said, “because that’s part of the game. Andrea, in his career, or David or Frank or any of the players that are coming here, they’ve never been substituted in their career. So for them, they don’t know what that means. So, for them to get frustrated, I fully understand that.

“It’s me as well. I have respect for them … to have a conversation. That is the way it is. I have been to that situation and it is not easy. I have massive respect for Andrea, for David, or for Maxi [Moralez]. It will happen during games that I will change David, Andrea or Maxi and they will get frustrated because it is normal.”

Pirlo said he has spoken to Vieira before and after matches.

“I am a player. It is normal. He decides,” he said. “For me it is no problem. I talked with him before the game, after the game. No problem.”

Pirlo’s performance this season has come under criticism by several members of the media, citing that he doesn’t run as much as other midfielders and becoming a defensive liability. Other observers feel he has been lacking as an attacking player as well.

Vieira, however, felt quite differently.

“I always say he is the one that switches the light in our game,” he said. “Like we’re in a dark room and Andrea switches the light on and our games starts to breath and our game starts to be a little bit more clear. This is what he brings us. Of course, I don’t expect Andrea to run like Alex Ring but I don’t expect Alex Ring to play like Andrea because they are different. I think the relationship between the three in the midfield is really good because they are all different.”

Moralez is the third midfielder.

Asked about the partnership with his midfield mates, Pirlo answered, “I feel good for them. They are very good players. They play good together.”

While statistics certainly are not the last word in a midfielder’s performance, Pirlo has not been credited with a goal or an assist in seven games for NYCFC (3-3-1). His corner kick attempts also seem off. Last year Pirlo accrued a team-best 11 assists.

“I play normal, some games good, some games normal,” he said. “But it is important I feel good. It is important for me. The rest of the season will be much better.”

When a reporter pursued the media questioning, Vieira said he knew what he has with Pirlo because he has watched him every day in practice since he took over the coaching reins last year.

“I don’t want to criticize the media because they are talking about what they’ve seen and what they know,” he said. “But they don’t know everything. I see Andrea every single day. I see how he works in training and that’s why I have no doubt about who he is as a player and as a person. And I think we can all give our opinions but I think [people] can do it with more respect, with more respect on what he achieved in the game. So, then we can all have a different opinion, but we can do better.”