SEATTLE – “I tend to watch a bit more MLS games now sometimes because of the players that are involved.”
Those were the words of Chelsea FC manager Roberto Di Matteo, and on the surface the mind immediately leaps to the likes of David Beckham and Thierry Henry. There’s little question that those are the league’s best-known names, guys who capture the attention of the average fan – not to mention the average UEFA Champions League manager.
But then Di Matteo listed off the players he was talking about.
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“They have some very good players," he said. "We obviously know Eddie Johnson a bit better than the others, but you know, [Mauro] Rosales, [Álvaro] Fernández – they’ve got some good players and it’ll be interesting to play them.”
Di Matteo is familiar with Johnson from the latter’s days in England. But the other two? That’s scouting.
The Blues are out for a win on Wednesday night against Seattle in the Herbalife World Football Challenge opener (9:30 pm ET; ESPN2), of that there should be no doubt.
“I followed the game they had against Red Bull [last weekend], so we have information about the Sounders,” Di Matteo explained.
And he doesn’t expect a walk in the park. The Swiss-Italian manager has been around the block a few times and knows what to look for in preseason. In the case of MLS, that’d be “a rising tide.”
“The perception that we have in Europe about the MLS is that it is improving,” Di Matteo explained. “And the fact that you sign players at a younger age now – very good players that have a proven track record in European leagues.”
It’s been one of the stories of the past several years, as the league as a whole has stemmed the tide of players leaving for the likes of the Danish or Swedish leagues, and begun to claim in-demand players like Fernández, Kris Boyd and others all on the right side of 30.
That’s all part of the allure for Chelsea, who are working to integrate several new faces and patch some holes left by the departure of a few familiar ones for their title defense. Starting in North America, then, made sense.
“The club has been here before,” Di Matteo said, referencing the two previous US tours Chelsea have taken in recent years. “They had a very good experience as I said, you know for preseason. You look at the training facilities that you have, the opposition that you are able to play in the friendly games, the preseason games.”
As for the game itself, along with scouting the Sounders on the field Di Matteo’s taken stock of the team and culture off the pitch as well. And he likes what he’s seen.
“It’s one of the best-supported MLS teams, 34,000 season ticket holders as far as I’m aware,” Di Matteo offered. “They’ve got a great fan base – very crazy about soccer here in Seattle. I know about the fans walking all together to the stadium which is a great gesture, I think. Very nice.”