KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) – Chelsea 's reign as champions of Europe won't begin in Europe, but rather on the other side of the globe in Seattle, where a familiar opponent awaits to show that the Blues are not the only club that has grown since the last time they met.
The Seattle Sounders host the Blues in the first match of Chelsea's USA tour, and this rematch of their 2009 friendly shapes up to be a good test for the London club as it begins its pre-season.
When the teams met three years ago, the Sounders were an expansion MLS franchise already enjoying success at the box office as well as on the field. Three years later, Seattle has established itself as one of the strongest clubs in America. Three US Open Cup titles and a steady run of packed crowds at CenturyLink Field have made the Sounders Major League Soccer's model franchise.
For the Blues, the friendly will serve as the first match the team plays since their dramatic UEFA Champions League victory over Bayern Munich at Allianz Arena. The penalty shootout win helped Chelsea win its first European title and provided an invaluable boost during what had been an otherwise disappointing domestic campaign.
Winning the Champions League, as well as the FA Cup , propelled Chelsea back into the conversation of Europe's elite, and has driven owner Roman Abramovich to invest even more into the club. Chelsea's signing of Belgian star Eden Hazard was a major victory for the club, with several other top teams having gone after the former Lille star. Hazard is expected to make his Chelsea debut in Seattle.
The friendly will also mark manager Roberto Di Matteo's first match since having the interim tag removed from his position . With two trophies under his belt in his first season in charge, Di Matteo should enjoy the kind of leeway and freedom that no Chelsea manager has truly enjoyed since Jose Mourinho was deputizing the sidelines at Stamford Bridge.
For Di Matteo and Chelsea, the four-match tour of North America will serve as an ideal setting to not only capitalize on their recent trophy haul in the United States, but will alson present the club with some tough tests in preparation of their upcoming Barclays Premier League season.
The Sounders will be looking to erase some bad memories of last summer's high-profile friendly, a 7-1 drubbing at the hands of Manchester United . Seattle head coach, Sigi Schmid, will surely approach the Chelsea friendly differently after seeing his second half substitutes torn to shreds on their way to a lop-sided loss that left many Seattle fans embarrassed.
The challenge for Schmid will be managing minutes as his team is in the midst of a busy portion of its schedule. The Sounders have recently hit a terrific run of form after going winless in eight straight matches in MLS play, with another successful US Open Cup run helping the team hit its stride.
Seattle's recent success has been due in large part to a recent run of goals by forward Eddie Johnson. The MLS All-Star will be facing Chelsea twice in a week, and he could find some success against a Chelsea defense that will be without John Terry and Ashley Cole on Wednesday night. The former Fulham striker will surely be looking to open some eyes by playing well against the Premier League giants.
Wednesday's friendly is also serving as a farewell match for long-time Sounders player Roger Levesque. A fan favorite who captured the affection of Sounders fans during the team's time in the USL (including his penchant for scoring goals against archrival Portland Timbers), Levesque is retiring from soccer after Wednesday's friendly, and his farewell should yield a memorable display from Seattle fans.
More than 50,000 fans are expected at CenturyLink Field for the friendly. While many will be wearing rave green and bidding farewell to a fan favorite, there promises to be a healthy splash of blue in the stands, with Chelsea's American fans in the Pacific Northwest getting their first glimpse at a team that will have its first chance to take the field as reigning European club champions.