Americans in Ligue 1: from Gaetjens to Weah via Bocanegra

Balogun arrived in France last year as a fresh-faced England Under-21 player looking to win minutes on loan at Stade de Reims from Arsenal. He left a full USMNT international, one who had plundered 21 goals in 37 Ligue 1 Uber Eats games.


Balogun is now back as the first-choice striker for both AS Monaco and the United States, and opened his account for his new employers as they held FC Lorient to a 2-2 draw at the Stade du Moustoir in Round 5.


“I believe that you get the best results in life when you’re not comfortable,” Balogun told The Athletic on his decision to return to Ligue 1 Uber Eats on a permanent basis this summer. “So that’s why I’ve taken myself out of my comfort zone, away from my family and friends, to improve as a player.”


Balogun now has Emmanuel Sabbi for company both domestically and for the USMNT now the winger has swapped Danish outfit Odense BK for promoted Le Havre AC. They may be among the most talented Americans to cross the pond, but they are far from the first.


French-American relations


France was America’s first ally following the founding of the United States in 1776, and the ties between the two nations have extended to the football – or should that be soccer? – field since 1951.


Joe Gaetjens was the first to try his luck in the French game when he signed for Racing Club de France, then known as Racing Club de Paris, following his starring role for the USA at the FIFA World Cup in Brazil in 1950.


Born in the former French colony of Haiti, Gaetjens was a striker who had scored 42 goals in 63 games with the now-defunct Brookhattan in the American Soccer League in the three years leading up to the tournament, and was a late addition to William Jeffrey’s squad.


England downed


Somewhat under the radar before the competition, Gaetjens etched his name into the history books when he scored to give the USA a 1-0 win over a much-fancied England in Belo Horizonte, which years later earned him an entry in France Football’s Les 100 Héros de la Coupe du Monde.


Gaetjens scored two goals in four games with Racing Club in the old French Division 1 before dropping down a level to play for Olympique Alès. Another two goals in 15 appearances later and he returned to his native Haiti, seeing out his career with Etoile Haïtienne.


But for Ilija Mitic’s six-game spell at Olympique de Marseille in the 1969/70 season, it wasn’t really until the turn of the century that US Soccer’s star-spangled best really started earning their stripes in Ligue 1 Uber Eats. Except, of course, in the case of David Regis.



A USA international left- and centre-back, Regis was, like Gaetjens, born in the Caribbean, although some 7,500 miles south east of Haiti in the French overseas region of Martinique.


Regis already had a decade of French football under his belt – which included a century of appearances with Valenciennes FC and a UEFA Intertoto Cup win with RC Strasbourg Alsace – when he was called up for the USA in 1998, qualifying by virtue of his wife being an American citizen.


Regis-tering his domain


Regis went to the France ’98 World Cup – won by the host nation after an unforgettable 3-0 win over Brazil at the Stade de France – playing all three of their group games, as well as the 2002 tournament in Japan and South Korea, although he didn’t feature during the latter competition.


His progress in France was significantly more consistent. As well as Valenciennes and Strasbourg, Regis turned out for RC Lens, FC Metz and ESTAC Troyes, before winding down his career in the Belgian lower leagues with an American record 312 senior appearances in French football under his belt.


“If I’d been brought into the 22 or 23 players to be a substitute, maybe I’d have said it was pointless,” Regis explained to MLS Soccer, reflecting on his call-up in 1998. “But the three games we played, and the friendlies as well, I was an undisputed first-team regular. Selecting a player isn’t about pleasing anyone, it’s about someone providing quality to a team, and I think that’s what I did.”



Much Adu about nothing?


There were some false starts into the new millennium. Freddy Adu, once touted as the great young hope of American soccer, was at the fourth of his 14 clubs across eight countries when he played nine games on loan at AS Monaco in 2008/09; while Paris-born former USA U23 goalkeeper Quentin Westberg, now of Atlanta United, let in six goals in four top-flight appearances with Troyes and Evian-Thonon-Gaillard.


Most of the two decades since the turn of the century have been characterised by native-born Americans infusing French teams with some undoubted quality, though. Virginian Greg Vanney joined Bastia in late 2001 and helped the Corsican club reach their first Coupe de France final in over 20 years less than six months later, which they lost 1-0 to FC Lorient.


In 10 of Vanney’s 37 USA appearances between 1996 and 2006 he had Bocanegra by his side. The Californian was – like Regis – a centre-back who could also play on the left, but he ultimately outstripped both of the aforementioned internationally, captaining the US for six years before retiring in 2012 with those 110 appearances to his name.


Bocanegra so close to glory


Bocanegra so nearly went one better than Vanney domestically, too, heading home the opening goal of the 2009 Coupe de France final for Stade Rennais FC only to see EA Guingamp mount a comeback to lift that year’s trophy with a 2-1 win in Paris. The 40-year-old, who also spent a season with Saint-Etienne, carries no hard feelings about the result, though.


“It was fantastic, playing at the Stade de France, the build-up to being in the Cup final,” he said. “It was just so much fun and the city was buzzing with all the fans, it was just an electric atmosphere in the city of Rennes leading up to that game. Even when we came home and we’d lost, they had filled the city square in Rennes with all the fans to welcome us home.”


Bedoya, Nantes


New Hampshire-born striker Charlie Davies spent two-and-a-half years with FC Sochaux-Montbéliard, scoring two goals in 10 games before leaving for Danish side Randers in 2012, before FC Nantes fielded the next two Americans in Ligue 1 Uber Eats: Alejandro Bedoya and Matt Miazga.


Bedoya was a popular figure at the Stade de la Beaujoire, scoring 11 goals in 87 appearances from midfield for Les Canaris. He left for Philadelphia Union in 2016, for whom he has since racked up more than 200 games. Two seasons later Miazga dipped his toe in French football, playing eight games on loan from Chelsea.


Showing the Weah?


The next American talent to be strut his stuff in the French game was Weah. The son of former AS Monaco, Paris Saint-Germain and Marseille superstar George, Timothy was born in Brooklyn in 2000 and swapped the New York Red Bulls’ youth academy for PSG’s aged 14. He subsequently made his name at LOSC as a winger and full-back, before earning a move to Juventus this summer.


Konrad de la Fuente and Erik Palmer-Brown both swapped big European footballing institutions for the French top flight in the summer of 2021, the former leaving Barcelona for Olympique de Marseille, the latter joining ESTAC Troyes from Manchester City, initially on loan.


They may now play for Eibar (on loan) and Panathinaikos respectively, but others have stuck about for longer in French football. Jordan Pefok is one. The Washington DC-born striker, now of Borussia Monchengladbach, broke through at Balogun’s former club Reims, won the Coupe de France with Rennes in 2019 and is now a US international having been capped up to Under-21 level with France.


Siebatcheu, Rennes


Still on French – or at least principality – shores, are Balogun and Sabbi, and if those before them are anything to go by, the future looks very bright indeed.


From the World Cup record books to French cup finals, Gaetjens, Bocanegra et al have lit up the French game. The Franco-American alliance may have formally ended in 1880, but in soccer, it is still going strong.

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