By John Boyle Herald Writer
RENTON — Back when the news was announced, it would have been hard to blame soccer fans in the region if they reacted with a shrug or a yawn.
In late March, Sounders FC announced that its opponent for a friendly this summer would be Chelsea FC. Now, there is no doubting that the London-based club is one of the most popular in the world, one with a big budget, a roster full of international stars and a rich history. But only a few short months ago, Chelsea was also a team that was in the midst of a wildly disappointing English Premier League season — the Blues would finish sixth in the final standings — and a team that had just fired its coach because of those struggles. Oh, and let’s not forget that many soccer fans in the area have already seen Chelsea in person, either when the Blues came to Seattle in 2004 to play Celtic FC or in 2009 when they faced Sounders FC.
Well over the course of the next couple of months following the announcement of the friendly, Chelsea FC, which will kick off its U.S. tour by playing Sounders FC at CenturyLink Field Wednesday night, became a much more attractive opponent. While a poor first half of the season undid Chelsea’s hopes in the Premier League, the Blues turned things around in a major way under interim coach Roberto Di Matteo, winning England’s F.A. Cup and even more impressively, the UEFA Champions League, the annual tournament that includes the top teams from across Europe.
So now, instead of hosting a team coming off of a disappointing season, Sounders FC is hosting the champions of Europe. But while Chelsea’s strong finish was good news for soccer fans who will be able to say they saw the European champs for a second time in Seattle — Barcelona was coming off a Champions League title when it came here in 2009 — it was even more important for the Blues, who hope to turn last season’s finish into momentum for the 2012-2013 season.
“It’s a springboard, because obviously there is confidence throughout the team after winning that competition,” said defender Gary Cahill following a training session at the Seahawks’ practice facility. “… It was strange. The first half of the season obviously didn’t go to plan for the club, but the second half was fantastic, and winning two cups by the end of the season was amazing. Hopefully we can compete more in the Premier League this season as well.”
Had Chelsea not finished strong to win a pair of trophies, it would have been a team searching for a new coach in the offseason — Di Matteo lost the interim tag and was named the team’s coach after Chelsea’s year-end trophy haul — and facing huge scrutiny back home. Instead, it is a team kicking off its preseason full of confidence.
“Everyone is really happy,” said midfielder Josh McEachran. “Team spirits are really good after last season. Hopefully we can progress to next season and win them all again.”
Of course for any team on a preseason tour, preparation is more important than the result. While Chelsea will be by far the more talented team on the field Wednesday, it will also be one that began its preseason preparation only a few days earlier, so it shouldn’t be a shock if Seattle makes the game interesting, much like it did against Chelsea in 2009. Both teams will likely substitute liberally in the second half rather than play for a victory, but that doesn’t mean the result will be meaningless to either team.
“(Results) are important,” said Cahill, whose team will also face France’s Paris Saint-Germain, the Major League Soccer All-Star team and Italian powerhouse A.C. Milan while in the U.S. “But mainly it’s the fitness and getting back to playing sharp and making the right decisions. But the group of lads that we’ve got, every time we take the field we want to win, that’s just the mentality, so obviously we want to win the game.”
And while a preseason tour for an established player like Cahill is mostly about building fitness and sharpening skills, it can be an important showcase for younger players such as the 19-year-old McEachran.
“Hopefully I can make my mark and impress Robbie (Di Matteo),” McEachran said.
Tonight’s Chelsea FC training session at CenturyLink Field is open to the public. Admission to the practice, which begins at 6:30 p.m., is free. Parking is available in the north lot for $12. The stadium’s northwest gates will open to the public at 6 p.m. … As of late last week, 49,000 tickets had been sold for the game.
Herald Writer John Boyle: email@example.com.