Signed by the Blues
By David Hirning
I have been a Chelsea FC “supporter” (to use the British parlance for “fan of a sports team”) for about five years. For that I can thank/blame two people: my cousin Mark and Christian Pulisic.
According to Mark’s oft-told “origin story,” he stumbled upon Chelsea matches when he was still young, free, and single and hanging out at a small soccer-themed pub in North Seattle called the Dray. (Now he’s married with three kids and lives in Portland—just a warning that this could happen to YOU.)
The Dray is the kind of place with 8 or 9 taps of edgy brews, a very small food menu, and two or three TVs that show nothing but soccer. (I found this last fact out the hard way one time, many years ago, when I requested that they put on a college basketball game and was met with derisive stares.)
Mark fell in love with the Chelsea of Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard (English Premier League champs in 2005, 2006, and 2010; Champions League winners in 2012). These were the glory years at Stamford Bridge, thanks chiefly to the munificence of their billionaire owner, Roman Abramovich. With the Russian oligarch repeatedly bringing in top Euro talent to the Bridge, the club was consistently among the elite in global football.
Meanwhile, back in Seattle, my soccer world consisted of a lifelong fandom of two teams: the Sounders (a team with roots in the NASL days of my youth and a perennial MLS playoff team since their debut in that league in 2009) and the United States. (I suppose it’s actually three teams, if you consider the U.S. men’s and women’s squads separately, as I am a huge fan of both.) I didn’t know my FA Cup from my Europa League, nor did I care to learn.
However, after years of listening to Mark babble about Chelsea and this thing called the “EPL,” I finally started to pay attention to British soccer around 2018. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that it was late that same year that I left Seattle (for the first time since college) and moved to San José, Costa Rica, to teach English. Little did I realize when I made this move that soccer—or football, if you prefer the global term—would be a huge part of my experience in Latin America.
When I arrived in San José, I quickly learned what it was like to live in a country where soccer was THE major sport. Everyone had a domestic league team they followed (Saprissa seemed to be the most popular; I decided to become a supporter of Liga Deportiva Alajuelense, because I liked the red-and-black uniforms). Quite a few people I met also had a European club that they rooted for. I discovered that the UEFA Champions League was very big—so much so that my teaching supervisor would find an illegal stream and put the matches on one of the TVs in a vacant classroom during the slow afternoons at school.
Up to this point, just to be different from Mark, I had expressed an interest in two other EPL clubs: Everton, because USA international Tim Howard had a long run as their starting goalkeeper (2007-16) and American striker Landon Donovan (one of my personal USMNT faves) had completed two short stints there as well; and Newcastle United, because former Sounder DeAndre Yedlin (who amazingly also went to my Seattle high school) played there for much of five seasons in the late 2010s. But neither team was Champions League-caliber, and I ultimately never really bonded with either club.
But Chelsea were still full of superstars, and they played Champions League football just about every season. Even in Costa Rica, I could watch them on my phone most Saturdays (thanks to NBC’s streaming app and Mark’s cable log-in). And then, in January 2019, the big news broke: Christian Pulisic—at that point probably the most hyped young American soccer star EVER—was coming to Chelsea! He would finish the season up at Dortmund in Germany, but then head to England for a transfer fee of around $60 million (a record figure for an American player that still stands).
That was it. I was IN. I guess Mark wouldn’t be getting that knock-off Chelsea kit that I’d bought at a Costa Rica soccer shop as a birthday gift after all. (One of my big regrets of this period was that I didn’t manage to join Mark and our mutual friend Ken on a pilgrimage to Stamford Bridge that the latter two made in spring 2019. Next time!) I’m still a huge Sounders and U.S. fan, but part of my soccer heart now belonged to the Blues.
The ensuing years of Chelsea fandom have brought some incredible highs, like Pulisic’s hat trick against Burnley in October 2019 (his first-ever goals for the team!) and Chelsea’s unlikely run to the Champions League crown in 2021. (I was back in Seattle by this time, and Mark made the trip up from Portland to watch the final with me and Ken; we even had a celebratory beverage at the Dray!)
It’s also brought some lows—Pulisic has suffered numerous injuries and even dealt with some mental struggles (later memorialized/satirized in a famous VW commercial). I don’t blame the kid—he’s only 24 years old, and left home (Hershey, PA) for Germany to become a pro soccer player when he was 15. Even if it’s your childhood dream, even if you are paid huge sums of money to do it, being a professional athlete at such a young age means handling intense pressure and relentless public scrutiny and criticism. You’d have to be a robot not to let it get to you, especially when you aren’t playing a lot.
Chelsea itself has suffered some rough times during the last few years. First, Abramovich and his oodles of rubles were sent packing by the British government in March 2022, shortly after Putin and Russia invaded Ukraine. The oligarch (and reported Putin associate) was forced to sell the club he’d owned since 2003, and the winning bidders turned out to be Americans. (Todd Boehly, one of the public faces of the ownership group, is also part-owner of the LA Dodgers, a team that I happened to be a huge fan of as a kid. Yes, before I was a fan of the Blues, I bled Dodger blue.)
Even though the club’s new ownership is plenty wealthy and has vowed to keep the big player contracts coming, perhaps the magic has slipped a little. Chelsea finished third in the EPL in 2022, around the time the sale was announced, but they were a startling 19 points off the pace of titlist Manchester City. Perhaps it was no surprise that manager Thomas Tuchel was let go last September, just 15 months after he hoisted the Champions League trophy for the Blues.
Tuchel’s replacement, former Brighton & Hove Albion manager Graham Potter, has proved unable to live up to the lofty expectations at Stamford Bridge. Chelsea sits buried at 10th place in the table and seemingly have no chance of qualifying for next year’s Champions League. (They’d need to rally and finish in the top four or—as Mark would no doubt remind me—win this year’s UCL title; fat chance of that!) About a week ago, the club was also bounced out of the FA Cup competition by Man City, 4-0, in the third round. The gap between Chelsea and the top teams in world football has never been more apparent.
The British press is already working overtime speculating about how long Potter can keep his job if this slide continues. It’s rare for a Chelsea manager to last very long once the wins stop coming, even though the Blues play in the toughest domestic league in the world. (Just ask club legend Lampard, who was hired in July 2019 and fired 18 months later. Tuchel took Lampard’s squad and won the Champions League trophy a few months later… which didn’t prevent his being fired in even less time than Lampard got. And the merry-go-round spins on.)
Then there’s Pulisic. The $60-million-man—who’s coming off a pretty successful World Cup in Qatar with the U.S. men’s team—went down with a knee injury shortly after the EPL season re-started in late December and will be out for at least a couple months. As mentioned above, it’s just the latest health issue for Pulisic, who has never been confused with a physical specimen. “Hershey Jesus” has also been the subject of rampant transfer rumors in recent months, but this latest injury will probably end those speculations.
The scuttlebutt is that Pulisic might have welcomed a move—he has reportedly been unhappy with his lack of playing time at Chelsea, which can start a lineup full of World Cup players every week and still leave a player like Pulisic on the bench. I’m still a huge fan of the American star, but this may be a case of “be careful what you wish for.”
Come to think of it, that might also be a good mantra for a Chelsea FC fan to remember. If you hitch your wagon to one of the richest and most successful teams in world football, be prepared for a wild and wooly ride. You will perpetually “live in interesting times.” Enjoy the show.