Football fans in the USA are celebrating a significant milestone this week as the 25th season of Major League Soccer kicks off across the country. Some of the biggest legends in Chelsea history have contributed to the competition’s growing popularity over the years, as well as a few former Blues you may not be so familiar with.
Ashley Cole, Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard were team-mates at Stamford Bridge through some of our most successful campaigns ever, winning pretty much every trophy going with Chelsea, but later became opponents in MLS.
Drogba and Lampard arrived first, both completing their moves in July 2015 and making their debuts the following month. The Ivorian striker joined Montreal Impact and certainly made a big one with the Canadian side, becoming the player in MLS history to score a hat-trick on his first start in the competition. Even better, it was a perfect hat-trick with a goal each from his right foot, left foot and head. He even followed it up with another four strikes in his next three games.
His goals helped Montreal to their best season ever two campaigns running, firing in double figures in both, before becoming a unique player-owner in America’s second-tier USL at Phoenix Rising.
Lampard’s first game for New York City had actually come against the Impact, but unfortunately a few weeks before Drogba was fit enough for his own bow, meaning we were denied an interesting reunion of Blues legends. Our current head coach also spent two seasons in MLS and took his goal-scoring form across the Atlantic with him, bagging the team’s first-ever hat-trick and the fastest goal in their history.
Their second season saw them joined by Cole in MLS, as the left-back began his time with LA Galaxy in January 2016. He would spend three years in California, the last of them as his team’s captain, but they were lean spells for the Galaxy, who couldn’t match their lofty ambitions and had to settle for a single short-lived appearance in the play-offs and reaching the semi-finals of the CONCACAF Champions League during that time.
He isn’t the only English former Chelsea defender to have captained an MLS side, though, as Blues Academy graduate Michael Mancienne currently wears the armband for New England Revolution, where he is now entering his third season as a key member of the team, even if he missed out on the chance to face his former club in last year’s Final Whistle on Hate match due to injury. Another player to come through our youth system also spent time in MLS, but Joel Kitamirike made just one first-team appearance each for Chelsea and Columbus Crew.
A few years before Cole’s MLS move, one of Lampard and Drogba’s former Chelsea team-mates had also been resident in Los Angeles, with goalkeeper Carlo Cudicini spending 2013 and 2014 with Galaxy. Alongside former Premier League rivals including David Beckham and Robbie Keane, Cudicini was part of the squad which went all the way and beat New England Revolution in the end-of-season MLS Cup, becoming the first side to be crowned champions five times.
One player who came to Chelsea from MLS is Matt Miazga, who moved to west London from New York Red Bulls in January 2016. The American centre-back started his professional career in the Big Apple, helping his side lift two Supporters’ Shields in three years and endearing himself to the fans by poking fun at neighbours New York City for playing at Yankee Stadium, swinging an imaginary baseball bat as he celebrated his goal in the Hudson River Derby.
Miazga’s last six months in his homeland saw him playing alongside former Chelsea winger Shaun Wright-Phillips, who spent two seasons with the Red Bulls. However, in contrast to his time in English football, Shaun found himself overshadowed by his brother Bradley in the US. He may have set up his younger brother’s goal on his debut, but it is Bradley who is the more famous of the duo across the Pond, becoming Red Bulls’ highest-ever scorer.
However, Chelsea’s links with Major League Soccer go right back to the start, with our former American-international striker Roy Wegerle heading back State-side to compete in the inaugural MLS season with Colorado Rapids. It was with DC United in 1997 that he enjoyed his most success, though, scoring two vital goals in the Eastern Conference semi-finals en route to winning the MLS Cup by beating his previous team, the Rapids. He spent a further season with Tampa Bay Mutiny before retiring a few months after representing the USA at the 1998 World Cup.
Colorado also became home to another striker who graced the Stamford Bridge pitch in the Nineties. John Spencer joined the Rapids in 2001 and starred in Denver for three seasons, being named in the MLS Best XI twice, each after finishing the campaign as his team’s top scorer.