As our friends across the Atlantic celebrate Independence Day, it is the perfect opportunity to remember some of the former Blues who have made a splash across the pond over the past half a century.
Once upon a time, the North American Soccer League – better known as the NASL – was home to some of the greatest footballers the world has ever seen, with Pele, Franz Beckenbauer and Johan Cruyff.
During this era in the 1970s, a number of Chelsea’s finest travelled Stateside to enjoy the ‘soccer’ experience as the beautiful game looked to impose itself on one of the world’s biggest, and potentially most lucrative, markets.
Although, ultimately, the NASL proved to be unsustainable, America’s hosting of the World Cup in 1994 was followed by the introduction of Major League Soccer, which remains the country’s leading domestic competition. MLS, and some of the lower tiers of the US game, have also been graced by several Blues.
While this list is by no means comprehensive, we’ve picked out a few of the players who have earned their stripes while starring in the States over the years.
Long regarded as one of the best left-backs in world football, Cole enjoyed the best eight years of his career at Chelsea, before ending up with Los Angeles Galaxy via a spell in Rome. He spent three seasons in California, appearing in close to 100 MLS matches, and he wore the captain’s armband in his final campaign with the club.
The diminutive Scot is regarded as one of the best players to have pulled on the Colorado Rapids jersey, following a wonderful four-year spell with the club, after which he was inducted into the club’s Gallery of Honor. It reignited his love for the beautiful game and he has since gone on to coach in the States, most notably as an assistant with Houston Dynamo, although he briefly branched out as head coach of the Portland Timbers.
Our former head coach – and, of course, the all-time leading scorer in the history of Chelsea FC – signed off his playing career during a spell with New York City, who were the newest club in MLS at the time. Typically, Lampard started his time there setting a new record, as he netted the first hat-trick in the club’s history, and he scored 13 times in 19 matches before hanging up his boots for good.
The trend of 2012 Champions League winners in MLS continued with Drogba, although technically he was playing in Canada as he signed for the Montreal Impact. A hat-trick on debut – and a ‘perfect’ one, no less – served notice of what was to come, as he scored at a rate of two goals every three games. He even netted against Arsenal, yet again, for the MLS All-Star team, and he later went on to become player-owner at Phoenix Rising, where fellow former Blue Shaun Wright-Phillips also plied his trade.
Before Drogba, Ossie was Chelsea’s undoubted ‘Cup Final King’. Well, he was the King of Stamford Bridge during the 1970s, after all. Osgood also spent time playing in the States, as he was seen as a marquee signing for Philadelphia Fury – who promptly had him starring in an advert mimicking the famous training scene from Rocky! One underwhelming season later, and with his knees shot to bits by the astroturf pitches favoured by many NASL sides, he was back in England.
No one was going to fit into US soccer better than Bonetti, whose famous nickname ensured instant fan-favourite status with the St Louis Stars. The Cat proved to be a big hit during his one year in the NASL, in 1975, as he was selected in the league’s team of the season, effectively making him the best goalkeeper in the country at that time.
Speaking of being the best in his position, Dempsey beat off strong competition to be named NASL Defender of the Year in 1979, as he was selected ahead of the great Franz Beckenbauer! That’s some achievement for our 1971 Cup Winners’ Cup goal hero, who proved to be the major English success story in Philadelphia ahead of the more illustrious Osgood. He enjoyed his time in Philly so much he spent three seasons there.
He may not have featured often for Chelsea, despite being one of our brightest Academy prospects of the late-Noughties, but Mancienne became the highest-paid defender in the MLS when New England Revolution signed him in August 2018. He went on to captain the club, but injury problems blighted his time there and meant he missed out on the chance to play against the Blues when we took on the Revolution in the Final Whistle On Hate match played in the spring of 2019.
The Bonnie Prince loved American life so much that he has remained in the country ever since making the move to California to play for the LA Aztecs. Supporters were privileged to see him and George Best in action together – presumably they needed two footballs on the pitch – and Cooke spent time coaching several clubs before launching his own soccer school.
A man who recently came to the fore once again, having previously been Chelsea’s last match-winner in a European tie against Manchester City – although Kai Havertz may just have overshadowed him. Smethurst appeared for the Blues as a substitute in the 1971 Cup Winners’ Cup final, but it’s in the NASL that he enjoyed his best years. He spent three goal-laden seasons with Tampa Bay Rowdies, where he was joined by his former Chelsea team-mate John Boyle.
The popular Italian goalkeeper played out the final two years of his career with LA Galaxy, although it’s fair to say he didn’t feature as regularly as he’d hoped after joining one of the top clubs in the MLS. He has since come back to Chelsea and worked in a number of roles, and he currently holds a position within our loans department.
Chelsea’s first USA international was a South African-born striker who briefly played for us in the late-1980s. After appearing for the USA at their home World Cup in 1994, he was one of the early stars of the nascent MLS and he helped DC United to glory in 1997. Although his playing career came to an end a year later, he took that familiar footballer pastime to the next level by attempting to become a professional golfer!