This morning, Sounders FC head coach Sigi Schmid saw a fan decked out in full Sounders regalia. To see that before gametime isn’t all that unusual, but this was at eight in the morning, still four hours before kickoff.
“He was already ready for the game,” Schmid said. “You’re not going to find that in any other city in America. It’s unique right now to Seattle.”
65,289 fans packed Qwest Field when the Sounders faced Chelsea on Saturday and many of them were like the fan Schmid saw so early in the morning. What they saw on the field was their local MLS club taking on one of the best clubs in the world and playing them toe-to-toe for 90 minutes.
Chelsea came away with a 2-0 win in the friendly, but the Sounders and their fans made a statement.
“I was very impressed with the way the guys played. They had a world All-Star team out there and until they scored the goal I felt that we were the more dangerous team,” said captain and goalkeeper Kasey Keller, who played 16 seasons in Europe before joining the Sounders.
“It sends a message out that we can play so good against Chelsea,” midfielder Freddie Ljungberg said. “When I speak to my friends back home, there are a lot of questions about the level and how we would play against a great team. I think that message was sent today and I think that it was very important for the European crowd to see that.”
The Sounders controlled the ball for much of the first ten minutes of the match, but Chelsea went on the offensive in the 12th minute. Florent Malouda passed to Daniel Sturridge on the left side of the box and Sturridge slipped a shot past Keller for the 1-0 lead.
The play went back and forth for the next 20 minutes before Chelsea added to their lead. Sturridge found Nicolas Anelka on the right side of the box and Anelka slid it to Frank Lampard in front of the net for a one-touch goal, chipping it over Keller for the 2-0 lead in the 35th minute.
But even though they were out manned by the now-perennial Champions League contenders, the Sounders never chose to play negative soccer and opted instead to keep up the tempo.
“We played soccer,” Schmid said. “We didn’t come to sit back and defend. We came to play soccer.”
According to Ljungberg, that impressed Chelsea’s players.
“It’s not everyday that you play against Chelsea if you’re playing in America so we wanted to enjoy the occasion. We’re one of the teams in America that are trying to play football and we should try to keep on doing that,” said Ljungberg, who played in the Premiership for ten years with Arsenal and West Ham United.
Added Chelsea manager Carlo Ancelotti, “The players are of good quality. Ljungberg is a great player now. He’s been a great player in the past and he is, again, a great player.”
“That’s great,” Sounders FC owner/GM Adrian Hanauer said. “That’s great for MLS and the Seattle Sounders FC. We know we can’t play with Chelsea in the middle of their season in a league structure but we know that on any given day, we can stay on the field with them. That just shows that heart, that team, that coaching … all those things go a long way in any particular game.”
The second half saw both teams empty their benches, with Michael Fucito, Lamar Neagle, Evan Brown and Terry Boss all seeing first team action for the first time this season.
And they didn’t disappoint.
One of the second-half highlights saw Zach Scott race in from the opposite side of the field to preserve a scoreless second half. Chelsea forward Franco Di Santo got a run up the middle and chipped the ball over Boss when the keeper came out to defend him. Scott flew in and kicked the ball free for the 80th minute stop.
Three minutes later Di Santo had another opportunity from close range and again chipped over Boss, but Scott kept it off the line and knocked it away.
“I owe Zach Scott big time. I’m definitely going to get that man dinner … maybe two,” Boss said. “It was one of those situations where you get caught in the middle and he beat me to the flick.”
For Hanauer, those plays were indicative of a team-wide attitude.
“We know that we can play football. Clearly they have players that are bigger, faster and stronger across 22 players. I was just so proud that we could stick with those guys and play some good soccer,” Hanauer said.
Nearly as impressive as the on-field play was the off-field atmosphere created by the third largest crowd in Seattle soccer history.
“The atmosphere was fantastic and it was a pleasure to play this game in these facilities with these people,” Ancelotti said.
To Keller though, the weekly regular season crowds are more impressive.
“Let’s be honest, America loves an occasion and there’s no problem to come and support that and the fans came out and had a great time in today’s game,” Keller said. “But what I’m so proud of is that it’s every day. When we come to a home game there’s 30-35,000 and the support is tremendous. That, for me, is the biggest message that’s sent out from this club. The occasion was fantastic, everyone had a good time and the players responded well. I’m just so proud of everything that the fans have done every time we step on the field.”
Chelsea will play Italian clubs AC Milan and Inter Milan and Mexico’s Club America to wrap up their US preseason tour. The Sounders will face the Houston Dynamo Tuesday in a US Open Cup semifinal match before returning to Xbox Pitch at Qwest Field to face the Chicago Fire on Saturday.