lampard.jpg
Since 2001, Lampard has been the face of Chelsea.
Three years ago, it didn't work out so well. Last year it got downright ugly. Sounders

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Sounders FC, Hoping History Doesn't Repeat, Host European Champions Chelsea

lampard.jpg
Since 2001, Lampard has been the face of Chelsea.
Three years ago, it didn't work out so well. Last year it got downright ugly. Sounders FC are hoping for a better result tonight in this season's major friendly, against Champions League winners Chelsea FC (6:30 p.m., ESPN2 and 97.3 KIRO-FM), with the subplot of Roger Levesque's final match in a Sounders uniform in a Seattle tenure dating back to 2003.

Chelsea was here in 2009, nearly three years to the day, in a friendly overshadowed somewhat by the following month's match with then-European champion Barcelona. The Blues scored twice against Kasey Keller and cruised to a 2-0 victory that could have been worse if not for four second-half saves by Terry Boss, Keller's backup. Forward Daniel Sturridge, who scored the first goal and set up Frank Lampard's second, won't have a chance to equal or surpass his feat; he's back in the UK training for the Olympics, where he'll compete for Great Britain.

The Sounders' priority tonight is ensuring that nothing on the pitch jeopardizes their chances of winning when the MLS season resumes--in other words, no injuries. But in the back of their minds--and those of their fans--is the 7-0 beatdown Manchester United laid on them last July, when they adopted the "let everybody play" approach of Saturday-morning little-kid soccer, and the reserves were taken apart for six second-half goals in front of a record home crowd of 67,052 and a national television audience.

That can't happen again.

Even though five of Chelsea's front-line players (defenders Ashley Cole and John Terry, midfielders Florent Malouda and Raul Meireles, and forward Fernando Torres) won't be here--having played into the knockout stage of the recently concluded European Championships, they'll be joining the U.S. tour in a few days--this team has enough world-class talent to hang another seven goals on the Sounders if they get a chance.

Given what went down the last time Chelsea was in town, Cole's absence isn't necessarily a bad thing, especially if you happen to be a young, attractive Seattle City Council staffer.

There's been plenty of turnover on both sides since the first match: Only six players on the current Sounders roster played against Chelsea three years ago; just five Blues who return to Seattle saw action against the Sounders.

Nearly 30 years ago, Chelsea was a club in peril. More than a decade removed from its high point, winning the Football Association Cup in 1970, the Blues had a bad case of 'em: An expensive, ill-advised stadium expansion that coincided with a severe economic downturn nearly bankrupted a proud, history-rich club founded in 1905, forcing ownership to sell off the land around its stadium, then sell its best player, star midfielder Ray Wilkins, to Manchester United. The talent drain knocked Chelsea out of the first division, and the Blues would spend the rest of the '80s toggling between relegation and promotion, with increasing failure fueling the rage of an unusually violent, vicious hooligan culture, aptly named "The Headhunters" and centered around the Shed End, the notorious south stands of venerable Stamford Bridge, the stadium built a year before the club's creation.

Fast-forward three decades, and the only way you'd lose your life at a Chelsea home match these days is if you suffocated in the vast amounts of money the club is making.

The international phenomenon, the marketing and merchandising juggernaut that Chelsea has become, landed here four days ago for the first leg of a U.S. tour featuring four matches in 11 days. Eight and a half weeks ago, the Blues enjoyed their greatest moment on an international stage, defeating perennial German power Bayern Munich in its own stadium to win the UEFA Champions League and the title of best club in Europe.

The talent that a nearly limitless player budget can create is staggering--11 members of Chelsea's roster played at least one match in Euro 2012, including two--Torres and midfielder Juan Mata, who didn't make the trip as he's also playing in the Olympics--from back-to-back champion Spain.

Chelsea exemplifies why it's a good thing to have a Russian billionaire buy your team (NBA fans in Brooklyn, take note).

Twenty-one years after British businessman Ken Bates bought Chelsea for a single pound while taking on £1.5 million in debt, he sold the club to that oligarch, 36-year-old Roman Abramovich, for £140 million ($233 million). Three months ago, Forbes valued Chelsea at £473 million ($761 million), trailing only Manchester United, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Arsenal, Bayern Munich, and AC Milan among the world's soccer giants.

Since Abramovich--whose worth is estimated at $12.1 billion--bought Chelsea in 2003, his club has topped the Premier League table three times and finished runner-up four times. The Blues have advanced to four FA Cup Finals, winning them all. Two appearances in the Champions League final have resulted in a bitter loss to Manchester United four years ago in Moscow in the first all-England final and May's historic victory in Munich.

From here, it's back across the country to New York (Yankee Stadium, no less!) and a match against French power Paris Saint-Germain next Sunday. Three days later outside Philadelphia, Chelsea provides the opposition for an MLS All-Star team that includes Sounders Ozzie Alonso and Eddie Johnson, then the Blues end their brief U.S. swing with a trip to Miami on July 28 to face Serie A titan AC Milan.

The Sounders will be back in action that night, finishing their season series in Colorado looking for a three-match sweep, three weeks after holding off the Rapids at the Clink.

That match will be the Sounders' first without Levesque on the roster. The 31-year-old, who made an appearance against Chelsea three years ago, coming on for Fredy Montero in the 63rd minute, announced his retirement last week after spending the past decade as a Sounder. Levesque, a fan favorite notable for his clutch goal-scoring, as well as his humor, accessibility and long history of community service, joined the United Soccer League's A-League Sounders in 2003 and played six seasons for the A-League and First Division clubs before making the move in 2009 to Seattle's Major League Soccer expansion team.

Expect Sigi Schmid to start Levesque tonight, giving the versatile veteran the heartfelt sendoff he deserves when he comes off the field--most likely in the second half--for the final time in a Sounders uniform.

 
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