England are in action against the USA at Wembley tonight, so we take a look back at some of the Blues who have plied their trade across the Atlantic.
Chelsea Football Club is, of course, no stranger to the country which will be co-hosting the 2026 World Cup, with our men’s team becoming regular visitors during the Roman Abramovich era and establishing ourselves as a popular presence Stateside.
Our familiarity doesn’t end there, however, as plenty of our former players have enjoyed stints playing in the various leagues which have been formed in the USA over the years.
That number has dwindled with the news that Joe Cole, who was playing for the Tampa Bay Rowdies, has hung up his boots this week. Didier Drogba, a Premier League title winner alongside Cole, has teased that he will join his old team-mate in retirement having served as player-owner at Phoenix Rising, where he played alongside another former Blue in Shaun Wright-Phillips.
However, Ashley Cole is still going strong at LA Galaxy, where is approaching three years on the west coast. The legendary left-back was even named as the club’s captain at the start of 2018, although it was a frustrating season as they missed out on reaching the MLS Play-offs for the second successive year.
Perhaps the most high-profile ex-Chelsea man to star in the States was Frank Lampard, now manager of Derby County, who saw out his playing career representing the then newly former New York City alongside a couple of fellow Champions League winners in David Villa and Andrea Pirlo. Lamps scored the first MLS hat-trick in franchise history and finished his final season as a professional with 13 goals in just 19 appearances.
Prior to the recent influx of British-based players to America, the Seventies was almost a who’s who of Chelsea legends heading over to play in the NASL. The great Peter Osgood joined Philadelphia Fury and was billed as one of the league’s big stars, even starring in an advert which mimicked the famous training scene from Rocky.
Unfortunately things didn’t quite go to plan on the pitch. With his knees struggling to deal with the many Astroturf surfaces, Ossie failed to have the desired impact and returned home after just one season. ‘The American dream had not quite turned into a nightmare, but I had woken up,’ he revealed in his autobiography.
Instead, it was John Dempsey, a scorer along with Osgood in our 1971 European Cup Winners’ Cup final replay win over Real Madrid, whose star shone brightest over in Philly. But Dempsey didn’t leave only Osgood in his shadow. ‘In 1979 I was named NASL Defender of the Year,’ reveals the former Ireland international. ‘They had an award for each position and I came ahead of all the other defenders – Franz Beckenbauer was second – so that was a good achievement for me.’ All in all, Dempsey spent three seasons with the club before hanging up his boots. A year later and the NASL was wound up, only returning in the mid Nineties as the MLS.
There were other Chelsea connections in the league at that time, too. Prior to establishing himself in the Blues’ first-team, David Stride spent a summer on loan to the Memphis Rogues, who were managed by Eddie McCreadie. He returned to the Bridge but when Geoff Hurst took the reins and didn’t see eye-to-eye with Stride, it was time to move on again. ‘I’d been put up for transfer and was on my way to Millwall,’ said Stride. ‘But the night before I was due to sign, Charlie Cooke phoned me up and asked if I fancied going back to Memphis.’ A long and productive spell in the States followed, albeit with moves to Millwall and Leyton Orient sandwiched in between.
The aforementioned McCreadie had taken charge of the newly-formed Memphis Rogues in tumultuous circumstances, as they were yet to play a game but had already gone through one manager, Malcolm Allison. There was something of a Chelsea reunion at the Liberty Bowl as Cooke, Stride and Alan Birchenall arrived at the club, but McCreadie left after failing to lead them into the play-offs – although he did briefly come out of retirement to play one game. He moved on to the Cleveland Force in the Major Indoor Soccer League and still lives in America now.
While money could have been considered a big motivation for some of the players on this list to head Stateside, the same couldn’t be said of Cooke – the Bonnie Prince’s wife, Diane, is from California. So having spent the last two summers of his Chelsea career appearing for the LA Aztecs, it came as no surprise when he made the switch full-time, playing alongside the legendary George Best. He also linked up withMcCreadie in both Memphis and Cleveland, even coaching the former after the departure of his fellow Scot, and had a stint as head coach of the Wichita Wings. Charlie is another who still lives in America, running his own soccer school.
Few players can quite match the late Keith Weller’s commitment to soccer. Having spent only a season with the Blues, finishing as top scorer and winning the European Cup Winners’ Cup, he enjoyed the best years of his career at Leicester before heading across the Atlantic. Weller performed well for the brilliantly-named New England Tea Men and Fort Lauderdale Strikers before enjoying a long coaching career in the Major Indoor Soccer League. Weller finally ended his participation in football in 1997, running a coffee shop in Seattle and driving an outside-broadcast rig for a television station. He passed away in 2004 at the age of 58.
Derek Smethurst was another success story. The South African forward may have only played 19 first-team games – including a sub appearance in the 1971 European Cup Winners’ Cup final – during his time at Chelsea, but that didn’t stop him being a hit in the NASL. His first three campaigns with the Tampa Bay Rowdies were sublime as he averaged just shy of a goal per game, playing alongside fellow ex-Blue John Boyle and Rodney Marsh. One particularly memorable game saw him net a hat-trick against Pele’s New York Cosmos side. ‘A reporter asked Pele how they lost the game,’ recalled Smethurst. ‘He just pointed at me and said, “Because of that guy!”’
Seventies heroes Alan Hudson and Peter Bonetti also played in the USA, the latter enjoying plenty of attention thanks to his nickname of “The Cat”, which made him a perfect fit for the league. But a nickname alone wasn’t enough for him to be a success and a string of fine displays in his one and only season saw him win the club’s MVP award, as well as earning a spot in the NASL Best XI and finishing third for the overall league MVP prize.
Last, but by no means least, we come to another cult hero at Stamford Bridge who became a legend during four years with the Colorado Rapids. Scorer of 37 goals in 88 appearances, John Spencer was named in the 2003 MLS Best XI and was also shortlisted for the Most Valuable Player award, later being inducted into the Rapids’ Gallery of Honor. He went on to enjoy a successful spell as assistant coach of the Houston Dynamo before becoming the first-ever head coach of the Portland Timbers. But it is his time with the Rapids which he recalls most fondly, saying: ‘It really revitalised my career and my love for the game. It’s something I'll never, ever forget.’